About a week ago, I was sitting at work, writing a memo and minding my own business when an email from a friend popped up on my screen. It was entitled “Not for the Squeamish-My Left Foot”. He had recently had surgery on the bottom of his foot. I was anxious to help him out. So I opened his email to see what he needed. With minimal explanation, he had sent me a photo of the bottom of his foot unbandaged, the hole a 1/4 of an inch deep.
Recently, I have known several people who have recently been through surgery, minor and major. When I have visited each of them, one of the first things that have asked me is whether I want to see their wound. They are always anxious to take off the bandages and show me their incisions, wounds, open sores.
I am not squeamish. The request for me to look is so heartfelt and earnest, I always say yes. But having looked at a lot of blood and gore recently I have found myself wondering why? Why it is that my dear ones have been so anxious to share their wounds?
Could it be that when we are sick and injured, the thing we need most, more than tea or flowers or orange juice or chocolates is for someone to see our wound, to acknowledge and the suffering it has caused us? To see it without judgement or fear. Could it be that somehow, we are better able to knit ourselves back together when those we care about are able to see us in our broken and wounded state and love us the same as if we are whole. In the act of being seen (and loved) in all our brokenness, do we somehow find a magical permission to heal?
I have thought about this so much lately, as news from Mumbai amplifies for me how we all of us are a wounded and broken people. How so many have suffered from hate and ill will. These wounds are deep and real and as crippling, as the holes in my friend’s feet.
And so are the wounds we all carry in our hearts, the wounds caused by poverty, or abandonment, or unkind words. We carry these wounds but we keep them hidden. We allow them to fester. We suffer in silence.
Is it that we are afraid that those we love the most will look away? Are we afraid that when they are confronted with our brokenness that they will shrink from our exposure, that they will confirm for us our worst fears: that we indeed are not whole? Or is that we fear that they will judge us for having these wounds. Tell us how we could have avoided them? Confirm for us that we are somehow to blame? So we keep them in the dark, we keep them in stale air, we don’t let them properly heal?
And how often do we hide those soul and heart wounds even from ourselves? How often do I allow, do you, do any of us, really just look at our wounds without squeaming, judging or blaming? Can I, can you, can any of us just be tender enough to look upon our own woundedness and simply say, “Wow. I am sorry. That must really really hurt. Let me hug you. Do you want some orange juice?”
I wonder what the world would look like if we could all be brave, swallow our squeamishness and just look and see. And if we then could all be brave enough to let all our wounds be seen. I just wonder…
My sweet Jackie and her precious daughter, the one who sat in that magic purple stroller.
It was only four words. Four words that I spoke out loud only by accident. I was newly pregnant. Juan and I were walking in the park. “That’s a nice stroller” I said tangentially to Juan, nodding toward a woman walking just a few feet away pushing a baby in a purple jogging stroller.
“Are you pregnant?” she said.
“Ummm…yeah…”I replied, nervous about putting the words out there publicly. “Just about 11 weeks”.
“Me too” she said “Eight weeks.” She nodded to the little one in the stroller. “They will be just 18 months apart.”
We walked together for a long stretch, down a pathway, around the corner, through the woods, across a street, talking about midwives, and children, a families before we finally said goodbye.
After that day, we waved and said hello when we would bump into each other. Later at the park, our babies, both boys, would sit together in the sandbox while we chatted about being working moms. We would push our kids in the swings and talk.
It was she who told me about the pre-school where I would eventually send Max, and the one who insisted that I sign up on the waiting list even though they were full. When Max got into her son’s class it was she who called to welcome me, sign me up for classroom duties and made me feel welcome. It was at that place where I met Jen and eventually where Jen (and I) found Odette.
And it was she who would eventually become my soul-sister, the mother of my son’s dear friend, the anchor of our neighborhood community. It was she who eventually introduced Max and I to a myriad of people who make our world sparkly and what it is today.
I often wonder what would have happened had I kept my thoughts to myself that day. What would have happened had I not nodded in the direction of the woman with the purple stroller. I’d like to think that I would have found Jackie anyway. That we would have landed around the same campfires gazing up at stars, that we would have still made communal meals, that we would spend hours watching addictive TV or picking lice out of our children’s hair or roaming through Miami Beach through some other path. I like to think that our hearts would have found each other some other way, some other place…but its hard to know for sure.
This weekend I sat on a rock pile with Jackie and Dolores, one of the dear people who Jackie brought into my life. I wrapped my arms around Jackie and held her close, so grateful I was for her simple presence here in my life. We were laughing about life and how it turns out, about Girl Scout troops, about the unexpected.
As I look forward this week to Thanksgiving I am reflecting on all that make me grateful. Not just for the big amazing things, like community and love and friendship and soul sisterhood. But for the small things, the tiny imperceptible decisions that lead to developing these things in our lives. For the coincidences and the tiny moments when the world unknowingly shifts and changes and spins in a new direction. For the words I uttered about a purple jogging stroller that would, unknowingly, begin to weave a strong support net, one that would catch me when I fell out of my marriage and into a new way of being. And for the love I might never known had I not uttered them.
Who would have thought, “That’s a nice stroller” would have been a magic spell, but those four words drew open a door through which love has paraded on through.
Tell me about what tiny little things you are grateful for this week….Tell me a story of something small that opened the door to something big and wonderous. Leave a comment here on the blog or leave us a link to your post on the matter. On Thanksgiving night I will randomly pick one of you to receive a piece of Jackie’s amazing pottery.
For Jackie, who I love greatly.
This past week I have been walking dogs. In the face of illness and tragedy, it seems like the only thing I could possibly do was show up, and walk the dog. When the humans were grieving, vomiting, sleeping, pacing, someone needed to walk the pooch. This week that human was often me.
Walking the dog is just something that needs to be done, like laundry or taking out the trash. No matter how worlds spin out of control, a dog needs to be walked. For me, walking the dog has become a metaphor for picking up and getting on with it. For continuing acknowledging pain and then just doing what needs to be done, without fanfare or drama. Quite literally it is about cleaning up the poop, stretching ones legs, breathing in the air and going around the block only to arrive exactly at where I started.
Max and I have been walking dogs together this week. He keeps track of each of them and asks me each night in the car, “Allie or Louie, mom?” We walk for a half hour at a time, giving the dogs time to explore. We walk and find ourselves talking about things that never would have occured to us otherwise. About the smell of leaves or the mean kid at school or about why dogs talk to each other by peeing.
Its been cold this week. Brutally cold for Maryland in November and I wonder about dragging my son out in the evening for these walks. But Max rarely complains. He doesn’t even ask me anymore about why, why do we need to go. My answer is simple. We need to walk the dog because it needs to be done. Someone is ill, sick, in the hospital, tired. So we will go. That is how we are as a community. When one of us is out the other walks the dog. No big deal.
And it is no big deal. It is no fancy thing–no gourmet meal prepared, no major Herculean task. It is a walk, around the block reminding me that life goes on, and on and on. And when the bottom falls out, we can simply do more than keep it moving.
Jeff and Max off exploring new spaces at sunset.
Love is a messy thing.
Recently Max has felt pretty clingy and undone–there is so much swirl going on in our life–so much instability. Odette’s illness this fall really rocked his world, and the recent cancer diagnoses in our world have him feeling unstable, unsure and scared. He has been clinging to those he loves like a life raft. And he loves Jeff. Deeply.
Recently Max told me that he sometimes wished our friend Jeff was his dad. Not that long ago he told me that he felt like Jeff was his “second dad” and another time “just like a dad”. And suddenly, each time he utters the “d” word, I have come a bit undone myself.
Jeff plays a special role in Max’s life, one that is hard to define. They go swimming together and share a love for hockey. Jeff offers a safe lap for Max to crawl into when he is feeling a bit wounded. He tells stories and wrestles with Max. Jeff offers these gifts to so many of the kids in the neighborhood–he shows no favorites– but to Max the attention means so much more than it does to the others–the ones with dads that are home and involved. To Max the attention he gets from Jeff is love, pure and simple, and it fills up the empty places in his heart–the ones left vacant by a father who chooses not to be around so much.
And so over the course of many months and over the span of more than a year, we have all given into this love Max has for Jeff. We have started to live into it, letting it carry us along like a river. Its opened up new ways of seeing for me. Its made the world a little sweeter…a little lighter. Its allowed me to really believe that others will help me shepherd Max into independence and awaken to the fact that I am just chief among his many guides. Its transformed me and Max and how we relate to our whole community.
Normally, we manage this dance quite gracefully–this ancient village parenting style. I sometimes feel like I am captain of TeamMax–the larger group of our community that is trying to help Max find his way in this world.
But other times we find ourselves tripping up and stomping on each other’s wounded toes. The boundaries don’t feel obvious or neat. Its so hard without the titles that define our relationships to guide us. The titles that establish the rules and give us comfort. Titles like “dad”. So I could see why Max was desperate to assign one to the member of his extended tribe he loves most.
But Max’s use of the word “dad” sent up a thousand red flags for me. Mostly it triggered a great fear that Max would now create suffering in the most positive male relationship in his life because he would suddenly attach unrealistic expectations to it, expectations that Jeff wouldn’t be able to fulfill. I wasn’t sure exactly what “dad” meant to Max–but I was sure that at least a few of those qualifications Jeff would never meet–no matter how much he loves Max and no matter how much Max wants him to play that role.
And so I set about trying to set him straight or as straight as one can set anyone on this crooked path called life and to help him see the reality of this unusual situation. And in the course of it what I learned is that really, what Max wanted, the foundation of his wish, was simply to know that he was loved, that he is dear to Jeff and always would be. He needed assurances that no matter what storms came floating through our life that Jeff would not stop loving him. The only way he knew how to ask for unconditional love was to use the word “dad”.
But in exploring it with him I also learned that he had, in using the adopting the word “dad”, already started to inadvertently attach a slew of expectations that might if he holds onto them too tightly leave him disappointed…without setting Jeff up to fail him.
Truth is, I don’t know how to put this we have for Jeff in any box with a label either. In a world where we “friend” practical strangers on Facebook and assure our spouses that someone doesn’t mean much to us by saying, “they are just a friend”, the word friend seems completely and utterly inadequate. Yet every other term out there that we search for ranges from vaguely inauthentic to downright untrue. He is neither uncle nor brother, dad nor partner, stepfather, half-father, or coach. In many ways he could act like any of these things to either of us at any moment but really at the most fundamental and basic ways none of these labels apply at all.
At another time in my life, this lack of definition could have been a matter of great frustration, but as I lay tossing and turning this morning, it dawned on me that it was nothing short of a gift. For the truth is, whenever love seems to fit neatly into cleanly labeled boxes, we all set ourselves up to fail and immediately open the door to unending disappointment and complete and utter doom.
How many hours have any of us spent in therapy trying to sort out suffering and grief because our mother or father didn’t live up to our expectations of “Mother” or “Father”? How many years of hurt and pain arise from partners who don’t behave as we think partners should? How many times have brothers or sisters disappointed us when they did not rise to the occasion of the title that was granted to them simply by the accident of shared parentage? How many times have we missed the gifts given to us by our loved ones simply because we were looking for something else? I don’t know about you, but for me the number runs into the thousands…
But Jeff with his big open heart that does not neatly fit anywhere offers us the opportunity to stay in this open space of no definition, to love without labels, without explanations and without the code-words that ultimately trip us up.
Why do we need to tame love with labels? Instead of trying to define Jeff and our affection for him by using words like friend, brother or dad, why not just let it be what it is…and not try and name it?
It certainly means messy moments as we stumble along without a map. We are going to need to work to define the boundaries instead of having some word lazily do it for us. What does it mean to play this nameless role in our “tribe”? What is appropriate and comfortable? We are going to have to draw these lines ourselves over and over again from scratch. We are setting out to explore uncharted terrain and are not playing by templates. This is hard enough for a 39 year old woman to do..can I ask my child to come along on this ride? But when considering the consequences, the thousands of missed opportunities, how could I not?
That is hard and scary and makes my stomach do all sorts of flips. It calls for nothing short of raw naked authenticity of the bravest kind. It calls for fearlessness and trust and for the willingness to see things, not as we want them to be but how they are. It calls for a willingness to let go of everything including our expectations and hopes of being loved back…yipes.
Yet, something tells me, if I can, if Max can, if we can somehow learn to navigate the path of our love for Jeff without labeling it, without metaphors or similes, we just might be able to do it in all our relationships…or at least in some of our relationships. We can undo some of the hurt that was caused when the people we labeled failed us by not living up to that label. We can let go of our need to put people in little boxes. And then maybe we can open a tiny space for love to flow more freely. And then maybe, just maybe the world will have space to breathe and to heal, just a tiny wee bit.
Or maybe we will just end up here where we started. Simply Exploring. Without a map.
Number of dogs belonging to hospitalized people I love that I will walk today: 2
Number of bags of dog poop I have thrown out (before lunch): 3
Number of servings of soup I made and froze this week for delivery: 12
Number of children I will pick up from school or the bus stop to cover our babysitter who is recovering from her surgery: 6
Number of crazy (but purely lovable) dear male friends who thought he might be able to WALK HOME from OUTPATIENT SUGERY on the bottom of HIS FOOT who I tracked down at the pharmacy and drove home: (thankfully only) 1
Number of times I stopped to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the beautiful life I get to live, the people I love and my ability to give to them, and my healthy beautiful child who has made me laugh several times already today: at least 100.
Seems like its been a pretty good day.
Today this parable, a teacher once told, keeps running through my head…I looked for her book so that I could quote it verbatim as she tells it but I can’t find it and so I will parphrase it here. Truth is its an old old tale. Told thousands and millions of times before.
A farmer has one horse to help him do the work on his farm. One day his horse runs away. All the neighbors come by to commiserate…They weep and say to him, “What horrible misfortune…”
The farmer says, “maybe…”
A few days later the man’s horse returns. But the horse does not return alone. His brings with him a whole pack of wild horses who settle on the man’s land and become his. All the neighbors come by to celebrate…They laugh and cheer and say “What great fortune you have…”
The farmer says, “maybe…”
A few days later, the farmer’s only son is thrown from the back of one of the horses he is trying to tame. He breaks his legs and is unable to walk, confined to bed and greatly ill. The neighbors come by to commiserate…They weep with the man and say, “What a terrible misfortune…”
The farmer says, “maybe…”
The next day the army comes through the village. The round up all the young men who are able to fight and conscript them as the country has just been invaded and all able men are needed to do battle. Because the farmer’s son has two broken legs, he is left behind in the care of his father. The neighbors come by to celebrate…They rejoice with the farmer and say, “What a marvelous fortune…”
The farmer says, “maybe…”
At our house we have been trying to make sense of an autumn where life has really not gone how we planned. Opportunities that we thought were blessings, turned complicated but have somehow righted themselves again.. Diagnoses that we thought were horrible led to successful surgeries and now a long descent into unknowing. Fairytale endings morphed into the beginnings of nightmares which give way to relief. Things changing, constantly changing and only being exactly what they are …right then…right there.
Tonight I sit stunned…hearing in the span of just several hours a rollercoaster of a tale. Last night, a dear friend’s child was shot in the chest. Last night he had a 1% chance of survival. And now…he is conscious, writing notes, squeezing his mother’s hand. But they do not know. We never know. It is what it is what is…
As my heart learns to ride this rollercoaster I have stopped trying to anticipate what comes next. My stomach will still drop when we hit those valleys. I will still laugh like a wildwoman at the top. The fear of what comes next does not tamper the grief. Experiencing the grief does not prevent the uplifting joy. Being numb changes none of it.
Over and over again it seems the universe is whispering this tale “Girl…you only have the need for two words…now…and this simple word which encompasses the whole of possibility: Maybe.
Maybe up and down.
Maybe Heartbreak with a side of Love. Maybe Love with a side of Heartbreak. Maybe both mixed up in a stew.
Maybe new. Maybe not.
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.”
1. Sitting on the edge of the the water and watching the sun set with a glass of wine in my hand.
2. Making tea in a copper kettle.
3. Feeling the arms of my beloveds around me.
4. Lighting candles at the dinner table.
5. Hearing the rain and the wind on the windows.
6. Being on the Eastern Shore with my favorite people.
7. Knowing that I will come home to Odette, home at last from the hospital.
8. The light. The light. The beautiful golden autumn light.
9. Hungarian mushroom soup.
10. The Pogues…oh and Freddie King.
11. Knowing I am loved. Deeply loved.
What about you? What is making your heart sing this weekend?
Go where the water is deep, where the water is still, where the water is dark.
Go where the air is cold, where the air stings your toes, where the air is solid and frozen.
Sit on the edge and hold the stones in your hands and feel the weight, so heavy and solid.
Throw the stone and see it sink.
Into the unknowing.
Stop running. Feel your own weight. Sink into the dark, feel the fear and go there.
Only in the deep dark can you see these stars, this moon, the reflection of brilliant light.
Off this still water.
Buck up, bear down, dig in and wait it out.
Find the silver lining.
Shift perspective-see the lesson–trust the reason.
Hold it all lightly. Claim its all interesting.
Say it is living
Know that it is dying.
Slam the door. Shout at the moon.
Kick and scream and don’t go easy.
Cry. Flail. Blame. Plead.
Dance. Sing. Weep. Laugh.
Build walls. Tear them down.
Sweep up dirt. Air out laundry.
Notice. See. Listen. Question.
None of this changes anything. Nothing changes anything but the passing of time.
And even time makes no promises.
I used to think that if I got it right, if I learned my lessons, if I bore my lot with dignity that I would be rewarded. Rewarded with rest.
I used to think that if I slayed the gremlins, if I journeyed bravely, if I kept up in the storms that I would find the Holy Grail and would be rewarded. Rewarded with some peace.
I used to think that if I somehow figured it out, that if I unlocked the mystery, that if I mastered the game there would be a magic transformation and all would be easier, simpler, picture perfect
Yet, it seems that the reward is really practice.
Practice in order to buck up, bear down, dig in and wait it out….
again and again and again.