I had another guitar lesson last night. Long after Jeff went home, and late into the evening tonight, I have been reflecting on what I learned…and it wasn’t just the groovy little shuffle rhythm that is on my homework for the week.
Don’t get me wrong–I am thinking about the shuffle rhythm alot–It is quite cool–but there is something more, something deeper. This little guitar of mine, she is helping me struggle with something so so much bigger. But (in the immortal words of Captain Underpants) before I tell you that story, I need to tell you this one.
Once upon a time (not really all that long ago), I was one of those relentless high achievers. You know the type…the person who had a whole series of things she does well and is always striving to do them better. In many ways it isn’t a bad way to be. A drive for perfection can result in some outstanding successes, beautiful art, high quality work product. I was open minded, humble and self-critical–always seeking to do it better next time. No sooner had I hit a one out of the park, I would draw a new boundary, a bigger playing field, and set new goals, stepping right back up to the plate. That drive and that humility served me well–In many arenas I grew quickly and achieved much over a very short period of time.
But a drive for perfection can, if unchecked, also distort reality. A few years ago, the mirror in which I viewed myself and my accomplishments, was as wavy as the ones found in a funhouse. No matter what I achieved at work or at home I really couldn’t rest and enjoy my accomplishments. No sooner had I leapt tall buildings with a single bound, my inner gremlin would come and raise the bar–set the standard for success just a little bit higher.
Of course, this gremlin also had a whole script she would repeat to try and motivate me. “That was good but not quite good enough/smart enough/together enough/disciplined enough/kind enough/pretty enough/thin enough/funny enough…” Come on now…we can get there…Lets just take it from the top”
It took a lot of work to silence that gremlin–and to recognize how she was robbing me of the joys of my success. It took years of practice to just be able to enjoy the things I did very well and to love and appreciate myself for the tremendous contributions I make to my work, my family and my community–exactly as they were. To be able to see the beauty of the things I did well and not rush to improve upon them. It took years for me to be able to settle into and enjoy doing something well, to take a compliment sincerely and to applaud myself and relax before upping the ante next time. It took years before I stopped beating myself up around the things I do, by all accounts, very well.
The good news is that from where I stand today I really have (for the most part) learned to embrace my success. I am able to recognize a well executed piece of work, to appreciate the kindess I extended to a stranger, to value and appreciate and love the things I bring to the world. I have come to value myself for the things I do well instead of beating myself up for not doing them perfectly. And that is no small thing.
But if I am completely honest with myself I will have to admit that while I have come to be quite comfortable with my accomplished self–I still struggle with the part of myself that is downright rough around the edges. The part of myself that isn’t doing things well at all.
The mother who loses her patience and yells at her scared child.
The worker who sits and stares at a blank computer screen unable to finish the report that should have been done days ago.
The friend who is not attentive to the exhaustion in her friend’s face and just keeps talking because there is a good story to be told.
The girl who, no matter, how hard she practices, can’t form that damn F chord. Who trips over the rhythmn. Who can’t play the simple song cleanly. Who finds herself playing the song WORSE today than she did yesterday.
Who among us, doesn’t struggle with that self, at least a little? Up until last night, I didn’t think twice about letting my little inner gremlins grumble about the unaccomplished, messier parts of me. Yeah yeah yeah of course I bought into the need to be kind to myself, and TRY to love my uglier self.
But really, if I had my druthers, I would rather improve my imperfect self a bit, and then appreciate her success. After all I had finally nailed the whole appreciating my accomplishments thing and it seems at this point in my life to be so much easier than embracing the ugly bits.
Learning to play guitar is a dream come true for me. And its not a dream I intend to give up on all too easily. I want so badly to play this instrument well. To make this guitar sing. But it is so hard for me to do it. I am not naturally talented at this instrument and picking it up later in life has been a bit of a challenge. When I play guitar, I am face to face with my most imperfect and untalented self.
But last night I learned that if I want to actually learn to play, I am going to have to learn to have patience and love my no-talent, tripping and falling, not very nimble guitar playing self. I am going to have to do it RIGHT NOW and not wait until there is a success to be celebrated.
Last night, Jeff said something very profound…something I can’t quite shake…something that applies to so many areas of my life. He spoke a truth which is settling into my heart and is resonating far beyond that pretty little instrument on my lap.
My frustration and lack of acceptance of my imperfect, messy playing–that is what is preventing me from getting better. No matter how hard I practice if I can’t get rid of that bad attitude I am not getting any better.
As I get pissed off , annoyed, frustrated with my mistakes, he showed me, my hands tense up, freeze in positions that make the stretches impossible. If I could just keep it loose and enjoy my imperfect chords, my sloppy rhythm, my muffled notes, if I could just learn to love my messy, imperfect guitar playing and appreciate it for what it is–FUN–my hands would be free to, with some intention, move more naturally where they need to go.
Its not just enough to appreciate what I do well. If I want to really reach my goals and live the dreams I have dared to dream–I am going to need to find some love and acceptance for the me who makes mistake after mistake. Its not enough to recognize and appreciate my successes. Its not just a nice sweet goal to hold my imperfect self gently–ITS A REQUIREMENT OF SUCCESS.
This lesson is sitting rather heavy on me. Its going to take a while to completely digest. Yes, I recognize that this is in many ways, a more advanced version of the lesson I have been working on for years and really an echo of things I have talked about not only here but in life for a long time. Yes, this is just an extension of the lesson I learned about silencing my gremlins-just a bit more subtle perhaps. In many ways this lesson feels so familiar, for indeed I have embraced doing things badly for some time now. But it also feels so revolutionary for me as well–a real “Eureka!” moment. The great aha is the necessity of loving the imperfect rough around the edges, not quite got it right girl–that its not a nice-ity, its non-negotiable to success.
The good news is that I will have a lot of opportunity to practice this appreciation for the bad. I am off to practice my sloppy shuffle. And to groove on it, messiness and all.
And I suppose, that when I am done, my heart will be ready to hold all of me, a bit more gently.
I say love will come to you
Hoping just because I spoke the words that they’re true
As if I offered up a crystal ball to look through
Where theres now one there will be two–Indigo Girls
Two and a half years ago I sat outside in the spring sunshine, talking to my friend Anne on the telephone. It had been a few months since Juan had moved out and while I was still reeling and sad much of the time I also had come to the point where I knew I would survive. I remember telling her that I was certain I would be fine, and in time I knew would be more than fine–I would be happy again. But I told her emphatically that I was quite certain that I would never fall in love again. It seemed like too big of a risk, too hard, too difficult. I just couldn’t imagine opening up my heart again. It just didn’t seem possible. I didn’t believe I could do it, or that I would even want it.
After 20 years of friendship, Anne knows me better than I know myself. She gently told me that while she respected my feelings at the moment she also was certain that I would fall in love again. Not because she wanted to play the role of Polly Anna in my life–and not because she wanted to make me feel better. But simply because I am that kind of person–a person who loves, an optimist and a person who needs to connect. I was soothed by her words, even if I didn’t entirely buy them. At least one of us had faith that I wouldn’t end up the neighborhood eccentric with 20 cats.
For the first year Juan was gone I spent most of it enveloped in magical thinking–hoping and praying that our marriage would repair itself and we would end up together again. There was the marriage counseling and the “date nights” and the other rituals that really, looking back on it were more like hospice care for a dying relationship. They gave me false hope and kept me believing that we had a chance. If I was truly honest with myself I saw it for what it was, but I wasn’t ready to be honest with myself. Not yet.
The second year after Juan left I struggled with coming to terms with the fact he was really gone from our life–and all the ramifications of that for Max and I. There were financial matters to deal with, emotional matters, practical matters like who would do drop off and pick up from school now that I was no longer trying to give him the space he needed to come home. There was so much work to be done around establishing rules that made Max feel safe and would protect him from disappointment. About establishing predicatability for him. There was seemingly impossible work to do trying to be both mother and father–to parent by myself. To pay the bills, take out the garbage and get dinner on the table. To have a reasonably clean home, to have reasonable routines To stay reasonably healthy. To be reasonable.
During those two years it took all I had just to accomplish that little bit. There was no energy left for the work of opening my heart. I think that work started last January, really, one cold brilliant night when the moon shone over the icey park. It was then when I started listening to my heart and what it needed. When I decided that working, and feeding Max and surviving from day to day were not enough for me. It was late that moonlit night and on many more thereafter that I realized that I had been handed a great big opportunity and gift in this separation–a chance to really explore my life, my passions and to follow long lost dreams–the ones that had fallen by the roadside a long time ago.
To be honest, I didn’t go about that work with the intention of breaking open the walls I had built around my heart. No–I simply wanted to live. But by golly, looking back I can see now that it was 1990 in Berlin. Simply by thinking and acting from my heart, I was making ready to open her up again. Because in the practice of being true to my heart, I saw that really there was no way around it– I am that kind of person…a person who loves. Its what I do. Its who I am.
That work is still in process. And indeed, my community, my friends and my little neighborhood family have given me enough space to exercise my heart. Love is really all around me, every day. I felt it as Eric and Jackie and their kids stood in my kitchen making pretzels. I felt it as I waved to the neighbors across the street. I felt it as I ate a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at Stephen and Marilyn’s house last week. It really is enough. And I am more than happy…I am truly content.
But still, I am starting to believe that maybe…just maybe…Anne might have been right. Not just about loving…but about falling in love. In fact I am certain of it.
Just to be clear –its not that I have met anyone dreamy–and in fact I am not actively looking (really). But in the last few weeks I just feel it in my bones and yes in my heart (where it matters most). I know it as certainly as I know my name. I felt it today, a deep comforting sigh, as I stretched into yoga poses during class-those spinal twists and backbends that always seem to loosen something up for me in the heart center. “No need to worry about this one,” my inner voice whispered. “Its covered.”
I can’t say exactly why I feel so strongly and so at peace about it. But as I eased myself into bridge pose, only two words came to mind, words that I can’t shake. “At last.”
This morning I woke up to the most amazing sky–fog silver grey hung over the backyard where I played as a young girl. Just one brilliant orange tree broke through–as though it were the sun itself.
Today is Thanksgiving. We don’t really start to celebrate until late on account of the fact that Sean, my baby brother, a New York City cop, has to work the parade. He does this every year, even though he is now a plain clothes guy, a detective. But he spends each Thanksgiving morning in his blue uniform surrounded by crowds and big cartoon balloons. Max always watches the parade, not to see Santa or the Rockettes, but to try and spy a peak at his beloved Uncle.
Because of our late start we are quite lazy on this day. While others bustle and hustle to make ready for company, we have spent the day wandering in and out of our own spaces, cooking, knitting, listening to music, reading. The pace is slow, not manic. We still have two more hours before anyone arrives.
It has given me lots of time to think about cultivating gratitude in my life. Its such a loaded word, gratitude. Andrea, over at Superhero Journal, wrote a fabulous piece about it–about how it can, if you are not careful, become a word that turns from an instrument of grace to an instrument of torture. How many of us, in our moments of deep deep longing have felt guilty, shamed, dog-faced because we yearned for something different instead of expressing appreciation for the blessings in our life. Gratitude can feel like such a judgemental word when you are wishing upon a star for something other than what you have. But longing is just the other side of gratitude. You can’t have one without the other.
And truth be told in the last few weeks I have known my fair share of longing. But there is also so much to be thankful for in this little life of mine. Here are just a few of the things on the list:
My child. His energetic spirit–so yang and bright and expansive. He is like a star exploding, he is zippity do-da. He writes love letters to his Grandmother and acts out the words to songs. He is my joy.
My community–the people I see every day, and those I connect with just occassionally. Each of them support and love us so dearly. Each of them is a blessing.
The written word. Poetry. Rumi. Words that I read. Words that I write.
Healing. My health is on the upswing. I recently found an amazing, brilliant and soulful doctor, and a truly gifted acupuncturist. Thanks to them my migraines are at bay, my energy is soaring, my body is beginning to support me in a new way.
Music. The music that I play, the songs that I sing with Max, the music on the ipod (this at this moment), music made by people I love such as this CD my dear friend Tim, a tenor with a voice like an angel, just released.
May you have a happy and joyful Thanksgiving. May your heart be filled with gratitude even as you wish upon a star. And may you dearest dreams come true.
A few hundred years ago, or so the story goes, a bunch of people came to a new land in search of a new life. They arrived hundreds of miles north from where they hoped to go–instead of the warm and settled Virginia shores, they landed in Massachussetts, a nice place, but much much colder, fiercer and wild. Their first winter was terrible, full of starvation and disease, the kind of trials that make one wonder what on earth was so great about the new life they were seeking…the kind of winter that makes one hungry for the old world, no matter how smelly or constraining or heartbreakingly hard it might have been.
And so they say, that the winter passed. Many died. Even more suffered. So much was lost and there was grief, and tears and heartache.
But the spring came, and they learned what kinds of new foods they could grow. They learned to hunt and made peace with the neighbors. They built a life that while rugged and tough was full and even joyful. People were married, babies were born. A community was built. And so after an autumn harvest they gathered together as a community to celebrate the bounty of all that they had…all that they have achieved. To toast their survival and give thanks for the food, their lives and each other.
I find myself relating alot to these pilgrims this holiday. Not that long ago I found myself in a bit of a bleak winter myself. My marriage was gone and I had landed on a new shore–one that I hadn’t set out for, one called single parenting. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no idea how to keep it together. My heart was heavy, my body sick, I felt alone and hungry and not quite sure how it would all turn out. But mostly I felt so utterly and overwhelmingly alone.
But somehow, by some miracle, I kept going–putting one foot in front of the other. I have no real memory of how I got through it all.
And eventually spring came. Things got a little lighter, a little easier. I learned to ask for help. I learned to reach outside my shell and open up my heart to new people and experiences. In the light of new sunshine I planted some seeds of hope and watered them with care. I talked more to the neighbors. I reached out of the shell of my grief and built new friendships and cared for the old ones too. I stopped thinking of myself as someone who had lost something and started thinking of this journey as a new adventure–sure one that had not been planned for–but an adventure nonetheless.
The other day, as I wrote this post, I was overcome with gratitude–a strong sense that my harvest had come in and that I was was blessed with a bounty three times greater than I had ever dared hope for. I have learned to cultivate community, love and friendship. I am surrounded by such love and joy. I know that no matter how cold the next winter gets I will not grow hungry or lonely again.
And while, yes, I have worked hard to get to this place, truth is I know I am blessed, really blessed. I have dear friends who helped me learn to grow hope and joy. I have community which made it all possible.
I have come to a new land…one called single parenting. I survived a cold lonely winter and have emerged joyful that I have made a new life in this place. I have planted hope and harvested love. I have grown tough and independent in this new land.
And for this I am thankful thankful thankful.
Today my dad turns 66. He has overcome great odds to be this age. Neither of his parents lived this long–they were they types who were beaten down by life and who were old before their times. But my dad he is still healthy, strong and full of life. My dad is not just a survivor–He is triumphant.
As a child my dad was always my hero–How could any little child not look up to a man like him?
He is a man of conviction with strong principles and strong values. He sticks by them. He is also fiercely loyal to friends and family. He is the man you want in your corner when life has you reeling. He is generous and funny and smart as a whip. As a child I believed every word he said. He was so strong, and seemed to know EVERYTHING. He does amazing things like fly airplanes and rebuild cars. I felt confident and secure whenever our family was rocked by crisis because I was sure that Dad would know what to do.
As an adult I went through a period of disillusionment. I realized he didn’t know everything afterall and that sometimes he was even wrong. I also realized that his convictions sometimes looked like stubbornness and his smart sense of humor sometimes has an unkind edge. I realized that he was not a superhero but a mere human, a damn fine one at that, but flawed nonetheless like all of us.
But now I know that I too am a flawed adult–I too am a parent who will one day disappoint her child. And from where I sit now I admire him even more than I did as a little child. Because I know what it took for him to get to the place he is today. To overcome the lot that life had handed him, to build the life he gave us from nothing at all. He came from an home where love was a scarce as the food and yet he overcame those scars to parent us with gentleness. He struggled and grew and pushed himself beyond what life had given him. That makes him so much more heroic in my book.
Happy Birthday Dear Daddy…may you live another 66 so proudly and triumphantly. May you march on with joy!
This morning I woke up with two cats and two boys jumping on my bed.
Only one cat and one boy are technically mine, but the others are my family, they all belong to my heart. Jakey is Max’s best friend. I like to tell people that on the weekends, I have other either two children or none. Max and Jake live together from Saturday am until Sunday pm, sleeping at one or the others houses almost every weekend. Separating them is painful and only done when necessary. It is the kind of friendship that I shared with Erica, the warm, wonderful and comfortable feeling of having not one home but two, of being able to walk in the back door without knocking, of knowing that there, always and anytime you are welcomed and loved, wanted and yes, even needed. That home is a place that is so much wider than a house. That you belong to something greater.
Toby, the orange cat is our neighbor’s pet. But when Rosie was recovering from cancer 3 years ago, she adopted him. He was a kitten and she was a cat exploring her maternal side. She used to carry him by his neck through the cat door. Now Toby wanders in and out of our home as though he belongs here. It is his home. He belongs to us. Just like our house belongs to Jake.
And just like Max and I belong to Jackie and Eric. We open the door to their yellow bungalow and announce our arrival with a shout. Often it is acknowledged but sometimes it is not. No matter, I let myself in and start to cook dinner or settle in to knit. Children run through and I kiss their boo-boos while I chop garlic and pour myself wine.
This morning I brought Jake back home and sat with Jackie having a cup of coffee. My dear friends Stephen and Marilyn come by to see Jackie’s almost complete remodel and seek her wisdom with their own kitchen project. While Marilyn and Jackie pour over photos and samples, I pour Stephen coffee while we huddle about work and talk about coming by to see his brother and nephew who will arrive for Thanksgiving on Tuesday. Max climbs in and out of his lap.
I glance at the clock and excuse myself, leaving Max upstairs to play with Jake, Jackie and Marilyn with the catalogues, Stephen with the coffee cup. I have a guitar lesson and need to clear a place in the war zone I call my living room for Jeff and I to sit. Its been weeks since my last guitar lesson and I need the help. Its been weeks since I’ve seen my friend Jeff and I need to hear him tell me a story, I need to hear him sing.
I leave the door open for Jeff who comes in and settles on the couch, Toby stretched out between us. Jeff and I wrestle with the hard parts as I stretch my fingers and try and make my guitar sing. We switch for a minute and he plays my little girl while I try his beautiful baby, a guitar with a sound as big as Texas. I laugh and switch back, the chords are no easier on a better guitar. Its me, not her and I just need to practice. He writes out my homework and I promise that I will play every day–that I will work hard. I am solemn in my promise.
We are rapping up our lesson as our housemate comes home from church. “Please Jeff,” I ask him, “Play for her. She has never heard you play”. She and I sit at the dining room table while he plays songs by the great Reverend Gary Davis in a way that makes you want to whisper Amen. I close my eyes and time stands still. “One more, please” I say like a little girl, “just one.” I would have sat there at the table asking for one more song for hours but the phone rings. It is Jackie.
Jeff and I head out.
We wander over and say hello to Eric who has been locked in the basement saudering things, melting metal and fixing pipes. We cross over to the park where the boys are climbing “Dirt Mountain”.
Max has been craving Jeff for weeks–He has been gone for the whole month for work and fun and Max feels it in his bones. He and Jakey climb all over him , play chase and tag with him, while Jackie and I collect leaves in the park. They are so brilliant this year–especially the red ones. I want to pick up red ones and press them in a book to remind me of this day with the sky so blue and the air so cool and brisk. Max sits in Jeff’s lap and snuggles his head on his chest. He is safe here–he belongs to Jeff as much as he belongs to me, this park, this tree he just climbed.
As the sun goes down I head home again, this time to pick up spinach and onions and potatoes and Gruyere. All the stuff for dinner and our housemate too. She cannot dine alone on a Sunday. We let ourselves into Jackie’s, wash spinach and cut potatoes . Jackie and Eric rearrange furniture while we cook for all nine of us, tripling the garlic in the recipe, doubling the butter.
Barbara, my other mother, arrives with Jackie’s girls. We pour wine and eat the leftover Gruyere. We talk about art and music and paint colors and wool while the gratin bubbles and bakes and the world feels right. Norah, the littlest one climbs into our housemate’s arms as though she knows that this mom, whose own children are sound asleep in a village in far away, is in need of a daughter’s love. At this moment, this woman belongs to Norah and her angel bell-like laugh.
This is my life as I love it. Community and friendship, connection and music, a shared life with boundaries so blurry that love can just seep through. Of belonging to one another with all the messiness and joy that this brings.
The rhythm of my life is doors opening without knocking, vegetables being chopped, coffee being poured and chores being shared. This is my life as I love it. This is the rhythm of my life.
Today Juan and Max were sitting at the kitchen table playing a board game. Juan is attempting to spend more time with Max, something that makes us all very very happy. I sat on the couch and practiced my guitar some, but after awhile my hand cramped up. I needed a new diversion.
Last week, late one night I made a splurge on-line purchase. I ordered myself not one but two fancy party dresses, the kind I could wear to a cocktail party if I had one on my social calendar, the kind I could wear to a Bat Mitzvah. (I do have that on my calendar).
I ordered them against my better judgement. But I ordered them anyway because the last time I purchased something fun, beautiful and decadent was for a wedding over 5 years ago. I was married back then and the dress, while still in fashion says “elegant married lady”. Don’t get me wrong, I like my elegant look. But I wanted something a bit more…flirty.
I wanted something new to wear to Christmas parties and New Years balls. I wanted something to throw on just in case someone called me up and invited me to put on 3 inch heels and drink fancy fancy drinks.
The dresses arrived yesterday and sat in a box on the couch. I was having instant buyer’s remorse. Afterall, the only holiday party I am sure I am going to is for work. Oh, yeah and I am pretty certain we will go to Jackie’s neighborhood party. Last year I wore jeans to that one. I almost sent the dresses back, sight unseen immediately, disgusted that I wasted money on something I clearly did not need.
But Max was occupied, dinner was done and I was bored. I decided to try them on before sending them back. Decided I would do it so that I would feel better when I returned them. I was certain I would hate the way I looked and that would make me feel so much better about letting them go.
I slipped the first dress over my head. Just at that moment, my dear dear housemate who had done a load of laundry and was bringing me some clothes walked in. I jumped up on the bed so as to better view myself in the mirror. She immediately “oohed and aahed” as if on cue. Women housemates are worth their weight in gold just for their uncanny ability to “ooh and ahh” just when you need it most. I spun around and shimmied just for good measure. Yes…I thought. This dress is good. I am not certain I will send it back.
I stripped and put on the second. There was more oohing and aahing …But I wasn’t convinced. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the plunging neckline, the fitted waist, the bold red color and black polka dots. Did I look flirty or did I look like a woman trying to be a girl?
I took off the dress and put on the first. Back and forth we went, scrutinizing each dress…Did it fit properly? Did it make me look curvy or fat? How would it look with this bra? These shoes? I put on my very best underwear just to see how it changed things. Everyone knows that dresses always look their best with good underwear.
I paraded into the kitchen in the first dress. There was consensus all around that the beautiful black dress was a keeper. It was ideal for the Bat Mizvah. It was elegant and really only a little bit flirty.
But the red dress…I just wasn’t sure. I brought it out on a hanger. Juan looked at me skeptically. Max said he loved it and begged me to try it on. I asked Juan if he had a minute. Juan was always my personal shopper when we were married. He knew exactly what looked good on me. I trust his opinion. After all, he once thought I was hot.
I ran into the bedroom like a little girl playing dressup. I threw on the dress and came out. Max told me I looked like a princess. “You look awesome mommy” he said. “Please keep it. And please wear it everyday to work!”
But the real judge was the guy in the coat, on his way out the door. “Wow” he said. I looked at him with a little smile and said, “I am not sure your opinion counts…You married me once. Pretend you never married me. What would you say if you saw me in this dress? Like for the first time.
“Its a beautiful Meg…Just beautiful. I think I would say–wow”.
I am keeping them both. At least I think I am. Juan left after that and I had to get on with my evening. I kept the dress on. I put on a pair of three inch heels and emptied the dishwasher.
There is nothing like making your own party.
Today was a bad day for all of us. Bad news and disappointment hung heavy in the air. I had another one of those brain foggy days where nothing got accomplished, time ran out while tasks piled up, and I felt so low and small and unexceptional.
It would have been bad enough if it had been just me, but when I arrived home to my little family I realized that we all had had this kind of days. They happen.
There was nothing to do but declare a trip out for icecream. Never mind that it is a school night. Never mind that I don’t need the calories. It is hard to feel frustrated or angry or sad when one is digging into an icecream such as this. When one is posing for silly photos. It is hard to feel defeated when the cool smooth icecream is dancing on our tongues and sliding down our throats.
Returning home the disappointments and frustrations were still there. The unaccomplished tasks were still piled up. But after this hour of silliness we were able to hold is so much lighter, breathe and try again.
Today was Juan’s birthday. Max planned a surprise birthday party for his dad. It was a small family affair. Just mommy, papi and Rosie the cat. Our housemate was an honored invited guest for the dinner and cake part. Every moment was orchestrated by this child who had dreamed of this party for days.
When Juan arrived Max told him to stay outside while we hid in our assigned places. We jumped out on cue to sing the birthday song that Max had written.
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
We’re glad that you’re 39
And we love you now you’re 39.
And then there was the dinner. Max said the grace, but only after I had lit all 8 pillar candles he had placed in the middle of the table. He said his prayers over the candles as solemnly as at a Sabbath dinner and then blew them out. We urged them to leave the candles lit–they looked so pretty and festive. But he insisted. He claimed that your prayers don’t come true if you don’t blow the candles out.
Then came the toasts. We needed to clink our glasses 39 times–taking breaks every 10 or so clinks to offer up a toast to the birthday man.
Max carried out the football icecream cake. He had picked it out especially for Juan because of Juan’s love for the game, a love which frankly neither Max nor I can understand. Max’s love of Snickers Carvel icecream cakes of course had nothing to do with it. Cake was followed by a family art project and then the games. By the time it was all over we were all exhausted but blissed out.
It was one of the moments when we shined as a family. When all the awkwardness and sorrow of the last several years just disappeared. When we could be exactly and everything that Max needed from us, despite our woundedness and all the ways we continue to disappoint each other.
And for this, this moment which we will all cling to when it gets hard again, for this I am most thankful.
Just weeks after Juan and I got married, I found myself in his mother’s rural Oaxacan kitchen, helping to set up an altar for the Day of the Dead. We had honeymooned for several weeks not too far away and Juan had wanted to come home to spend time with his family while we were so close. As the newest member of the family I was initiated into the family with a rite both so heavy and light.
I was struck by the beauty of this ritual. By the joy. Sugar skeletons, sweet bread and bright orange flowers–not the stuff of mourning–all mixed up with keenings and tears and grief, raw and real.
I was struck by the healthiness of declaring a day, when everyone can grieve openly and remember those who have passed, no matter how long ago. When the community can be together in pure empathy–all embracing loss together. “Yes, you miss your mother /son /brother /sister /husband /best friend…I do too.” What a more realistic way to deal with loss. In our culture it seems that we give people space to feel their sadness intensely for a short period of time and then we expect them to buck up, move on, get over it, be well and fine.
How lovely it was to sit around the gravesides and tell stories, to give honor to the ones who had touched so many lives while a mariachi band roamed and a man wandered through selling tortas and tacos and sweet rice drinks. “This is the way” Tio Roberto el gordo said “that we don’t forget. That our family stories get passed down.” But as the mariachis roamed singing cheerful songs while candles burned and delicious, decadent picnics were laid out I thought that this day was so much more. This holiday is really celebration of the power of our hearts, a recognition that we can hold deep loss and grief at the same time as we embrace great great joy. That a heart can simultaneously weep and sing.
I was struck by the large number of mothers, (my husband’s aunt and my own dear sister in law included) who made tiny altars for the children they had lost. Whether the loss was recent or 30 years passed each altar was lovingly decorated with sweets, flowers and toys. Juana, my husband’s oldest sister, invited me to the graveside of her young daughter. Together, along with her three young girls we decorated the simple earth mound with bright orange flowers, the color of joy. With tears in her eyes she whispered the family news to her beloved child gone too soon. She told her that Paolina, the baby, had just turned one. That los primos were visiting from Mexico City. That her Tio had married an American, that she had come to visit. That all these things made her so so happy that her heart was so full of joy and she wished she could share it with her.
I know deep in my soul that when any of us lose someone or something truly beloved whether a child, a spouse, a parent, a marriage, a dream, the grief never really completely goes away. The loss stays with us, although over time the intensity mellows. We may not even feel its presence for days, weeks, months or years but then it pops up again. We measure our progress, not by the complete absense of sorrow from our life but rather by the sting as we bump up against the edges of our loss. Early on it is like bumping into a wall of broken glass bottles that pierce our sides and make us cry out. But after awhile, we bump up against loss and it is more like a brick wall, and then more like a tree. It still smarts but does not consume us, does not draw blood, does not leave us wounded for days or weeks.
And its presence, no matter how intense or persistent does not preclude peace, joy and happiness.
I have thought alot about that Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico as I have pondered where I am in my life right now. While it is true that rainy November mornings can summon the deep grief of the loss of true love, it is also true that in my heart I am holding so much excitement, joy and silliness that I sometimes think it will explode sending confetti and sparklies everywhere. Having survived my greatest fear I am marching through life so much more lightly, so much more gleefully, so much more openly than I ever would have if I was still comfortably married with a fear buried in my heart. I am ready to embrace the next phase of my life. I am hungry for new adventures. I am in such a good space in so many ways.
Yes, the biggest lesson of all of this really is that my heart is big and wide enough to hold both sorrow about the loss of the past and great excitement for the adventures of the future. The grief and the joy are both there, together every day, mixed up in one heart, like the yin and yang.