These are the flowers that sat on my table last week. Every morning I wake up at 6 am to write. These flowers were my partners–keeping me going inspiring me. They are gone now and only clutter and bills and lots of mess in preparation for the upcoming journey to Ireland sit on my table. But the memory lingers.
Yesterday my friend Nick and his lovely wife Kate stopped by for a quick tour of the neighborhood. I have been on a campaign to get them to move to our neck of the woods. Its been unrelenting really and a bit over the top. But missions are missions…
Nick is work friend–and a relatively new one at that. I have lately tried to make real distinctions and firm boundaries between my work and private life. But Nick is one of those rare exceptions. He deals with me in a way that is completely and utterly accepting. He and his wife seem to me to be the kind of people that you want to live right around the corner, close enough to walk there in the span of time it takes to make a drink. Spontaneous and warm. The kind of people who would walk in your back door without knocking when they need something from your cupboard. Who step over the clutter without blinking an eye. People you could invite for dinner just as you are throwing the food on the table.
And it if for this reason that they must live here in our community–be part of our tribe–this ever expanding group of people bound together by the strings of everyday life and a thousand tiny acts of kindness. We eat at each others tables, love each others children, weed each others gardens and occasionally clean up each others messes.
Last night my friend Eric organized a potluck in the park. All evening people streamed through carrying yummy healthy food. Children rolled in dirt and were scolded for wandering off too far. When Max fell on the pavement there were at least 5 grownups he consulted to share his pain.
And for every person I saw that I knew and loved, I met two more people.
I had been worried about the whole school thing because I feared secretly that I would lose part of my community if Max didn’t go to school with a certain group of kids. But now, I see how silly that really is.
I belong to a tribe–not a cliche. While cliches contract and are quick to exclude based on a finite list shared experiences, tribes expand in all directions and delight in new connections, new reasons to stop by, new friends to welcome. The tribe I belong to won’t change–it will grow. And me, I’ll grow with it.
Max and I don’t seem to be very lucky with lotteries these days.
Me, I play the powerball every Wednesday and Saturday. Its my dollar for hope program. Funny, I never have won a dime–not even a $1 for getting the powerball right. Its just how it goes. I keep playing, just in case. I don’t expect to win, but how does the jingle go–You got to be in it to win it? And I have to admit, when the numbers come in I feel a wave of momentary disappointment wash over me like a little light breeze before I feel thrilled for the winners. (and I DO always feel thrilled for the winners)
Today we learned that Max lost the lottery that would determine who would get into the Spanish immersion elementary school. Not getting into the Spanish program is not that big a deal but this is the school that ALL of his neighborhood and preschool best buds will go to (those who aren’t going to Catholic school that is). Instead of climbing on the shiny yellow bus with all his friends, he instead will go to the neighborhood school where he knows noone. Disappointment hangs over our house like a thundercloud.
Its one of those really intense lotteries–10 people entering for each spot etc. but we must have a lucky group of friends. And while we both knew the odds were really against us, we had been staking our hopes on it. (If everyone you knew had won the powerball wouldn’t you have bet a $100!) This is a child who has so much transition and disappointment in his young life I was really hoping that kindergarten could be a bit easier for him–that he would be able to go to a school where he knew all the big kids, and plenty of the little ones too. Where his friends could tell him all about the teachers, the festivals, where it would feel so familiar–so much like home. All he knows about elementary school he knows from these kids and he had really been counting (perhaps too much) on learning the ropes directly from them. We had wished upon a star for it.
I too, was hoping that I wouldn’t have to start over again either. New parents, new community, new rules and noone to show me the ropes. How much easier it would have been just to get the skinny on all things elementary school from my own precious community. Instead both Max and I will go at it alone. The pouty me wants to add for very dramatic emphasis…AGAIN.
Not getting into the school feels a little too familiar–being on the outside looking in. So many in our group have so much that we don’t–happy marriages/dads that are around, financial security, immediate family in the area to help out when in a bind–and now they are together at school while we sit on the outside again, just Max and me. I haven’t been jealous at all of any of my community and the abundance of gifts they have until just this moment. And now I practically poisonous with all the envy I am spitting.
I am sure the Universe has some greater and different plan for us–some lessons we will learn–some new and amazing experiences etc. I know all too well that normally when doors are closed, windows do tend to open—blah blah blah. I can’t listen to that anymore than I can listen to a friend tell me that Max will be OK–it will just be hard the first few weeks etc etc. I can’t bear to watch this precious little boy who loves being part of a tribe as much as I feel lonely and left out again for even more more minute. I can’t stand to ask him buck up one more time. Not now.
It is quite true as friends have pointed out that we might be on the waiting list, that a spot might open up, that perhaps I could write the principal and beg him to take pity on us. Tomorrow all of that will make a lot of sense and we will move from there into action or acceptance. Tomorrow I am sure the jealousy will fade too, and I will be thrilled that they have what they do and I will be grateful for all we have–for we truly do dwell in abundance. I know it intellectually.
But tonight we sit again on the outside, our noses pressed to the glass wishing we had something different. Disappointed with how it all turned out.
Yesterday I dragged the big green suitcase, the one that is as big as I am, down from my attic. It clattered down the ladder and startled the cat so much that I had to go and rescue her from an unfortunate hiding spot, deep in the insulation.
After rescuing the cat, I laid the open suitcase out in my room and lovingly began to pack piece after piece of clothing that we would take with us to Ireland, humming all the while.
Nevermind that I am not going to Ireland for another 10 days. Nevermind that I can’t remember the last trip I took that didn’t have me up to 3 in the morning the night before I left, furiously packing, dumping and repacking my bags. Nevermind that I don’t BELIEVE in packing early–that is something that (note exaggerated eye-roll here) my MOTHER would do.
When I was a child, any trip we took was prefaced by what felt like weeks of my mother running around at a furious pace, making lists, doing laundry and packing bags. I remember thinking (in my snarky teenage way) that Mom would fall apart if the bags weren’t properly prepared days before departure. Packing became an event–complete with the stress, drama and excitement of international travel itself. I promised myself (in the way all teenagers do) that I would NEVER let travel preparation take center stage. I would NEVER obsess for weeks about what to wear and pack and what I would need to bring. I would never stress about having the right shoes. I would be sane about it.
So as an adult I took it to the other extreme. I would consciously wait until the very last minute to even begin thinking about my trip. Sure I might buy myself something special, but it would stay in the bag it came in in my front hall until–oh about 5 am when I remembered I had it and had to shove it in the bag, first dumping out everything else to repack it more efficiently. Carryon bags were emptied and repacked when I panicked–do I have my book? A pen? Lifesavers? My tickets? It didn’t matter what happened on my trip–nothing would be more stressful than the last 30 minutes before I would have to leave for the airport. And strangely enough it worked for me on travels past. Fun trip and only one crazy night to get ready.
Ireland has been calling me. I need this trip like I need water. Even though I have never been I have this haunting feeling I am going home. But I am scared. This is the first time I have spent any significant time with my nutty but loveable family of origin since Juan and I separated. In fact this is the first time I have traveled abroad (accept for work) without Juan in ten years. The last time we took a trip like this Juan was with me and Max wasn’t even dreamt up. My brother Sean had yet to become a policeofficer, let alone an Iraqi war veteran, husband and father. So much has changed since then–I have changed, they have changed. Two new children have been added to our clan.
Yet, even as I fret, I know deep in my soul that I will find healing and rest in the green and mist. And that knowing is pushing me on. This journey is calling me home.
But this same knowing is telling me that this is an adventure I cannot simply tumble into. I cannot take this journey lightly. I must prepare–not only with the right clothes, but with the right open mind and easy going attitude. I believe my packing has become a little meditation to that end. As a gardener tills the soil, dreaming of tomatoes, I count pairs of jeans and dream of what I will see when I am wearing them next. As I pack rainjackets and sensible shoes, I prepare my heart for the messy, imperfect, but genuine love that only families of origin can dish out. As I make endless lists of the things I must take with me but cannot pack yet (camera, journal, book, knitting) I build a little fortress of things I love to protect and nourish me.
Today I ordered two new white long sleeve t-shirts. When they arrive I will close the suitcase and set it by the door. Tomorrow I will go to the library to pick out a second book to stash in case I finish my first one. On Wednesday I will buy batteries for the cameras. And so on. I wonder if Max will remember these errands that disrupt our routine as stressful preparation or rather a grown woman making ready for a voyage of the heart? In my ritual I suddenly recognize the sanity of my 40 something mother, making ready for the journeys she knew would take her home
When I was a little girl, I would spend hour after hour composing elaborate stories. The stories were little more than a record of each and every little detail of a fantasy world I had just created: the yellow French dot cotton dress that my heroine was wearing–her strawberry blond hair plaited neatly into two braids tied with grossgrain ribbon, the sun falling just so on her basket of flowers that contained roses (pink and yellow), daisies and sunflowers. The details I described were always so over the top idyllic. There was never anything dark, dreary or tense in these stories. The were simply descriptions of a beautiful life.
As an adolescent I hated those stories. They seemed to me to be just childish lists of details–the stories had little if any plots now matter how well the scenes had been set. In fact, looking back, it was when I read my plotless stories with a cynical teenage eye that I started to tell myself I had no talent for writing.
Every now and then when I am talking I revert to my childhood love of detail. I set up the points I am trying to make with elaborate metaphors and delight as much in creating the color in the comparisons as I do in conveying my thought. Sometimes my oh-so-patient friends have to gently ask me to get to the point. I have spent many years apologizing for my “circumloquation”. But now I am starting to embrace it. Because living with such detail requires that I pay attention–whether its to the here and now or the dream in my head. And paying attention means drinking in life. And that is a good thing. It will be what saves me.
Somewhere along the path to adulthood I lost my ability or rather my willingness to pay attention. Being a productive and successful somebody in Washington DC means walking quickly while on the cellphone, composing memos on the metro, working in a taxi, reading your email, making a decision, running a meeting all while walking to dentist. By age 30 I could have competed in the ultimate Multitasking Olympics. When Max was a toddler I could read whole stories to him (with feeling no less! ) and realize as we closed the book that I hadn’t taken in the story–at all. Even if pressed with my son’s life on the line, I couldn’t tell you what the story was about. I had read the story while all the while working out a sticky work problem in my head. I felt madly productive, if a little bit empty.
When my marriage went south, the inner dialogue became about that. These, however, were problems I couldn’t solve. And as my inner announcer indulged in instant replay after instant replay I started to drown. It was 24/7–all day, every day. Suddenly my ability to multitask became a liability.
And then, as if by divine intervention, I realized that the only way to survive, to stay sane, would be to pay attention to what I was doing at that exact moment. If that chatterbox inside my head was going to do a play by play it would have to focus on what was happening at that exact moment.
My inner dialogue went something like this:
I am reading a story about a bear to my son.
The book feels heavy in my hands.
Max smells like soap (or dirt). Breathe in.
Pay attention to the words.
This is a lovely story.
The colors in this book are really rich.
I am walking to the coffee place.
I am feeling really stressed.
I am feeling really tired.
The sun is shining–it must be 86 degrees out.
That lady is wearing a hideous blue suit.
At first it felt odd and stilted and a complete waste of time. And then after awhile I noticed the inner dialoge would slow down when I was caring for Max, engrossed in a book, or gardening. It stayed focused on I was doing, accept to tell me how I was feeling or to get a glass of water.
About 8 months after Juan left me I was wandering around Rio de Janiero by myself in the rain. (I had gone there for work). Drinking in the sights and smells so rich and luscious I suddenly I realized I hadn’t been talking to myself at all for over an hour-maybe two. I had just been moving silently through the day paying attention to each and every thing I saw, heard, or smelled-without comment!. When I met my friend Eddie later I was so excited to share my realization with him but I didn’t even know how to begin talking about a concept so deeply personal. I kept the secret to myself but bubbled all night from the joy of it.
I have to admit, the productivity that I had prided myself on dropped substantially when I relearned to pay attention. Frankly it has never really recovered, not to the level it once was at least. When I take a taxi, I look out the window or talk to the driver or listen to what he has playing on the radio. When I walk to the dentist I watch the people on the street. I get a lot less done, however I feel a tiny ounce more connected with the world around me and a bit more nourished, more alive–and that is worth a thousand things crossed off my to do list.
Still, now that the drama of my life has returned to the more mundane I find myself slipping into my old bad habit again. My inner voice has begun to build grocery lists while I am gardening, obsess about a deadline while putting Max to sleep. I miss the light change on the sofa, the sound of the water fountain, the squeal of the bats in my yard as they set out for the night while I play a scene with my boss over in my mind. I have been complaining lately of how exhausted I feel. I wonder if it is because I am ignoring my need to pay attention and take in every glorious detail of the world around me while I obsess over the things that bother me. I miss the glorious moment I am in while staying stuck in the bad ones that already have passed. I need to gently remind myself to pay attention. .
Max has just awoken from his nap. He stretches one little hand into my line of view. A songbird is chirping in the distance. My right foot has fallen asleep and my calf is tense. I am feeling chilly. Breathe in. Breathe out. Write
Anne wraps up chocolate bars, tea bags, soap and hair clips in very pretty paper and sends them priority mail to mark special events.
When Maxidoodle went through his jigsaw puzzle phase she wrote him letters on blank puzzles and sent them in the mail all broken up.
She calls to reminds me when it is free cone day at Ben and Jerry’s.
When Juan left me, Anne planned a trip to fly down from Boston by herself with an infant in tow. She planned it two weeks out so that I would have something to look forward to. Knowing she was coming allowed me to put one foot in front of the other during those lonely two weeks.
Anne is the strongest person I know. Six weeks after the death of her infant son she held my newborn and told me he was beautiful.
Anne was my first grown-up friend who “got me”–took me for face value without an ounce of judgement. No matter how kooky I am it doesn’t phase her–she understands.
Anne has known me at my most irresponsible, my most childish, my most hateful, my most selfish and my saddest hours and has continued to love me without a second thought.
Anne is never afraid to ask questions. Her curiousity about the smallest of details delights me. For nearly twenty years she has forced me to slow down and really look and attempt to answer why.
Anne is honest with herself about her feelings, no matter how ugly or scary they may be. She expects the same of me too.
She writes letters longhand.
Anne knows how to laugh. She and I can laugh for hours. Her laughter is like music to me–a deep Buddha like sound. A prayer. We laugh about everything–the hysterically funny, the absurd, the joyful and the sad.
She knows where all the good bargains are. She shares that information with me.
She sang”Me and Bobby McGee” to a packed house and would have made Janis herself proud.
She uses perfect grammar. I don’t and she never ever makes me feel bad about it.
She listens with a big wide open compassionate heart to everyone she talks to.
She has tutored adults who don’t know how to read.
She goes to dances with her uncle-in-law Leo.
She taught me about Trader Joes, rooibus tea, non-toxic cleaning products, Garcia-Marquez, Madrid, Irish immigration French cooking, copper pots and countless other topics.
She has spent hours with me wandering around bookstores.
She loves the library and the beach and The New Yorker and Brainchild Magazine as much as I do.
She says “I love you” without fear.
Annie with her precious daughter Isabel two years ago on a rescue mission to Maryland.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANNIE! May your year be full of abundance and joy!
I have nothing brilliant to say tonight and yet I find myself lingering here. I feel I need to write something moving, or say something splashy, witty or deep. But tonight–I got nothing.
I am not very good with nothing. Negative space was a concept that always threw me off in high school art class. Noise could be my middle name. I have always been a more more more kind of girl. More stuff, more papers, more books, more coffee, more ice cream. I have learned to live in clutter, justifying it as the product of an active creative mind. I stuffed my brain full of endless chatter, my house full of momentos, my office full of papers. Nothing (and her twin sister silence) scared the bejezus out of me.
But over the last few years something has shifted and I am beginning to learn to welcome them in. When Juan moved out I wanted to change the environment in the house and give myself space to grieve and move on. I sought the advice of my friend Pat, a feng shui diva. She pointed out that there was no room for me to rest mentally or emotionally in my house. My eyes were always falling on something and all that something was tripping me up.
Slowly but surely I have been getting rid of the clutter. Not just in the house, but my life. I am giving or throwing away things I don’t love or use. Making hard choices on how to spend my time and money. Saying no more often, chosing only things that will feed my soul. Driving means driving–not cell phone calls, knitting at red lights or NPR (well maybe a little NPR)
But that means there is suddenly a whole lot of nothing in my life–wide open expanses. And silence.
And just because I welcome the nothing and the silence doesn’t mean I am completely comfortable with them. Like tonight I sit and try to will something to come and fill the void. But I have to resist the temptation to fill these spaces. I need to learn to breathe into them. To let go.
Growth will not happen without nothing. A bumper crop of strawberries cannot grow in a field choked with weeds. So turn the soil I must, let the field lay fallow and wait here in silence.
A summer will soon arrive and my fields will be full to brimming with sweet fruit. But for now–I will settle for nothing.