We had spent the day at the beach–a crazy day with waves so hard they could dislocate your shoulder if they threw you just right. We spent the day on an endless expanse of white flying kites and looking for wild horses. We wanted to go home but we were hungry and the boardwalk was close by. The sparkling arcade lights which started to twinkle as the long day gave in to night captivated this boy and made me hold on far longer than I ever expected to.
When I took these photos I was so fully aware that Max had turned a corner his life. I saw he was no longer the baby I wished him to be. The changes of the last year felt palpable and sudden. On the cusp of turning nine he was fully a big kid now, no longer the little babe I had once rocked. Be-freckled and strong in limb. A little unsure. A bit tentative and awkward. Starting to grapple with the what it means to make the world his own.
This past summer, I was in a bit of a fog. It was so easy to look at my life and see what was missing–or rather, how it didn’t match up against all the expectations and dreams I had built up. Even as I wrote endlessly about being in the present, I felt the future tugging at me and taunting me with visions of how what I had just wasn’t enough, how we hadn’t yet arrived, how everything was supposed to be different at this point in my story.
I have always had a hard time with staying here in this moment. Even as a little girl I spent many hours daydreaming about a better life, the life I would lead some day. In some versions of those dreams, I was rescued. In other versions of those dreams, I stumbled upon luck and fortune. In still more versions I myself had moved mountains to create the change. But the common theme was always a change, something different, something other. Now, in the tough times, when life is hard, it feels so easy to console myself with imagining the future–simpler, brighter. Things will get better I tell myself–and I dream it in technicolor.
But there is a problem with this and we all know what it is. Life rarely goes as we plan it and disappointment is inevitable. And while I sit dreaming of an imaginary life, my real life slips by with little notice.
Which brings me to this summer. I was stumbling along, a prisoner of my own discontent. Surely, I would grumble, it was time that I would be rewarded for doing my soul work, for the pain and suffering I endured through my divorce. Surely life was going to get better than THIS…this mundane, difficult, stressful, day in and out slog. And truth is, I hated myself for thinking that way because I knew that I would one day miss that slog. Because even while I complained I saw out of the corner of my eye that it was full of tender kisses, a boy growing up, dear friends blossoming, kindnesses and sorrows too poignant to miss. But there I sat grumbling. I knew I was missing my life by wishing it away to be replaced by a better “someday” and worse still I would catch myself and beat myself up for my lack of gratitude– suffer over my own suffering. It was exhausting.
It was one day in July when I was lying on the acupuncture table, contemplating this crazy space I occupied. Even as my mind wandered I kept bringing it to my breath, to the play of the light against the crystals hanging from the ceiling above me, desperate for a way to ground myself to the present. And it was then, the wisdom bubbled up–at first a whisper and then more of a roar. “You just need to learn how to see”. And I seemed to know, even then, that what I needed was a creative practice that would force me out of contemplation and rumination and into the act of pure observation.
It was not more than a week later that I bought my camera, my first REAL camera. And I began a practice of looking through my lens for no other reason than to simply see. As a beginner photographer I need to pay complete attention to what I am doing. I cannot go on autopilot–every thing is new and requires attention. And attention, I am learning over and over again is nothing short of love. When I lift that camera to my eye I am immersed in details I never bothered to register before: the light, the contrast, the depth of field, the speed, the way that everything changes in a second–one second boldness in her eyes, the next moment fear. Take too long and you might miss it. Taking photos of things I love has helped me to pay attention to them in ways I never have before and it is grounding me, and breaking me open. It has been a creative and spiritual practice.
For the last several months, I have been struggling with what to do here on this blog. It seems as though all the stories I wanted to tell have told themselves. Other stories I have are still too raw or tender or unformed to tell. I had once upon a time imagined a story arc I would hope would play out here, a narrative that would provide adventure, excitement and lots of rich material for writing. But life plays out differently and those stories are not. I have been wordless, something which has been both a relief and a source of deep pain.
Instead, my creative life has looked like this: Me with my camera, living my life, stopping to breathe and relish. My camera has been a tool, like my sitting practice, helping me to hold all that I love about my life RIGHT NOW in front of my own eyes. At hockey practice, or work, at the Max’s school or in the park, at coffee with a friend or a community dinner I may be taking photos and learning to see my life, not as I hoped it would be but isn’t but exactly as it is–sparkling, hopeful, tender, sad, joyful, messy but beautiful and fleeting and mine.
I feel somewhat tender and shy about sharing my photos more broadly. As a lover of photography, I am aware of all the technical ways my photos fall short. I recently showed some of my favorites to a good friend who is a gifted photographer and a pro. And so like a little girl wobbling along on her first two wheeler I am practicing so many things at once: balance, observation, movement, creativity and most importantly love. She was encouraging and kind. “Keep going” she said. “You are doing it!”
I showed up today, hoping to write but realized that my stories flow from these photos now. I have little to say that is new. Instead, these tender shots are the only story I have to tell now. So we will be doing something different for a few weeks here. Its time to start sharing what I have seen, what I love, what is mine to cherish in this miraculous moment unfolding. And maybe the words will come, but if they don’t we can sit in silence together and marvel at how exquisitely life loves us.
I have one of these cool journals. A ten year journal where you have just 4 lines to capture the essence of the day. It is laid out so that on one page one can see what happened on the same day over a period of ten years. February 19, 2009…February 19, 2010…February 19, 2011. After writing the days news yesterday, I looked back over the last three years and sighed. “Nothing’s changed,” I shrugged. Reports of ice time and Caps games and playdates. Same problems, same sadnesses, same simple pleasures that stitched together a day. I grumpily closed my journal and turned over to turn out the light, murmuring about the lack of movement in our simple little life.
But the simple fact is everything changes. All the time. The sameness is just an illusion, a cheap trick. But all it takes is a shimmering ray of sunlight to break the trance.
In the last 3 months, this boy has grown an inch. He’s made friends this year, who don’t live so close to home, on the other side of the county. The first night that he is over there, it is as though he is half a world away. These changes snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking, slowly bit by bit, the way the baby fat disappeared leaving a lean young man at the dinner table doing his homework. Subtle.
Someone I love who was very sick got well, and another person I love who was well got very sick. These things happen, like that, a bomb dropped, a miracle. Sudden.
Jobs change. Addresses change. Adventures arise when we least expect them. People leave. Others come. Some stick around for now. And every now and then we are struck with a remarkable moment of pure laughter and love.
Pay attention to this moment, girl, for all that it brought, tinged with joy or sorrow or maybe both, all it brought is about to slip away. You can try and hold onto it but it will only make you cry when it pulls away from your desperate grasp. Because it will. Are you going to waste this moment here trying to hold onto something that has gone? This is the way we miss our life. We can miss it without even noticing that we are missing it. We can miss it by grieving that we missed it.
A wise teacher once told me that letting go of every breath is the most basic act of faith. The exhalation does not come with a guarantee in writing that if we let go of this air there will be enough to breathe next time and yet we breathe. We are already so practiced in the act of faith. We have been faithful since birth, since the first time we breathed out without knowing if we would ever fill our lungs again.
This is a good thing, because I need that sort of faith to loosen my grasp on the moment and to let it go without knowing what comes next, without worry, without fear, without expectations. All those things get in the way of paying attention. Quick sink in and let it wash over you and bathe it with its warm warm light before it goes again with the exhalation, whoosh…
A couple of weeks ago now (it feels like a lifetime), Max and I were stuck in a terrible snowstorm. It was the kind of snowstorm that brings down trees and turns DC roads into a mess. Like everyone else, we left the office early, but it wasn’t early enough. By the time we hit the roads, traffic was at a virtual standstill. My normal 25 minute commute lasted almost 6 hours.
But the point at which we arrived home is the end of the story. What is more fascinating is what happened in between.
For the first hour it felt like an adventure. We were moving along at a snail’s pace but we were certain we would make it home for dinner time. I dreamt of what I would cook and was comforted by the fire I would start, the cup of tea I would make within minutes of our arrival.
In the second hour, we started to get a bit itchy, but were certain that we would make it home for the Caps game on TV. The cup of tea turned into a glass of wine. I would need it after all this stop and go.
In the third hour it was clear that we would miss the start of the game, and that dinner would in fact be a long ways away. All the dreaming of tea and wine had made me thirsty. Max had fallen asleep in the car and everything on the radio began to feel old. We had moved barely 10 feet. I began to think we would be there all night. It was then that irritation and restlessness started to set in. Suddenly I was flooded with visions of being home in front of a warm cozy fire, a smooth glass of wine in my hand, the Caps game on the big TV and I wanted to scream and lay on my horn as though that would make the seas part. As I sat uncomfortably, munching on a donut that Max had earlier scavenged from the crevices of the back seat, misery snuck into the passenger seat and taunted me. “You’re not home” it whined. “This is miserable.”
And then something happened that saved me. I learned that the power was out at home.
Transformers had blown and the entire neighborhood was out. The house was cold and dark. There would be no tea, no Caps game, no warm dinner. All my visions of what could have been went up in smoke and I suddenly saw my situation much more clearly.
I was warm. There was an interesting story on the radio. Max was dozing in and out, but relatively content snuggled up in a sleeping back in the back seat. When he woke up from his naps we chatted about things we rarely had time to talk about. While we didn’t have a full tank, we had plenty of gas. The woman in the car in front of me was chatty and kind and together we were moving the branches that fell in our path. The man in the car crawling along in the right hand lane was patient and funny and compassionate, checking in on Max. We could melt snow for water. The stale donuts in the back of the car had filled us up. There was in fact, nothing truly miserable about our situation.
Somewhere in between hour four and five, I had one of those epiphanies that make me feel so naive, like a too-smart schoolgirl, stung by the simplest of lessons she had missed. Rarely does my suffering arise from my life’s circumstances. It is not what my life is that causes me pain. More often than not, when I suffer, it it caused by my disappointment about what my life is not. After all these years, that teaching had never sunk in so profoundly, but rather it had floated about on the surface of my intellect. But suddenly, in the midst of that thick wet snow that promised to hold us hostage, a switch was flipped and I could no longer deny it.
As I turned off the traffic filled road and onto a snow choked side street, I breathed into the reality that we were Ok, more than OK in fact. And while I had no idea of what would happen next I was certain that everything seems to change, even if its slowly.
With the newness of my understanding settling, I felt a bit sheepish and even a bit childish in my complete lack of understanding. All these years, even as I had talked the talk about non-attachment, I find I wound the tendrils of my happiness firmly around visions of some false future and then whine when its somehow different.
Its a habit, a very hard one to break.
I am being gentle with myself now. It takes a lot of courage to admit that most of my pain and misery is truly just an illusion. I have nursed my suffering so for so many years. As I tended my own wounds I felt, I don’t know…. Complete. Worldly. Complex. Deep.
Thats not to say that my pain wasn’t real. Just that not all of it was necessary. And while there is grief that will be unavoidable, real sorrows and feelings of loss, I can save myself from a whole lot of manufactured hurt if I dare. I’d like to think there is infinite value in being able to see behind the veil of my own disappointment into the richness of my own magnificent life.
This Sunday, like every Sunday, Max will have a hockey game.
When he started with this team in October he knew not one kid. Most of the kids were at least one year older and two grades ahead in school. They came from all over our very large county–and the team ranged from kids who were farm kids to kids like Max who consider themselves city kids. Many of the kids knew each other from years of playing hockey together but this was Max’s first year on an official team.
He felt the outsider in every way, searching desperately for one kid–just one–he could eventually call friend. The first few practices he felt so lonely and out of place. Me too. While I am a pretty social gal, I carried a lot of angst around hanging out with the people who were not my people–you know, the artsy, lefty types from my neck of the woods, the ones I call my tribe. If I am honest, the other parts of the county make me a bit…well…nervous. What would we have in common, I thought?
Yet here we are in January and Max is in love with his team. Here we are in January and I am looking forward to the time I spend with those parents, the ones I thought were so different from me. Here we are in January and when we walk through the doors of the Iceplex, it feels a little like coming home.
Max and I we spend countless hours at the rink. Each week it seems that practice stretched longer and longer as the boys grab a snack at the grill and head to the arcade, drinking in each other’s company in the easy way that boys can.
And we parents too, are silently coming together, drawn together like ships in a tiny harbor. His coach recently pointed out that we log 4 hours a week together in a very small space between practices, games, and dressing and undressing the boys. We pick up each other’s hats and move each others things, manipulating our way around small spaces. Many of those hours are in the wee morning and many more in that frantic post-work time slot when we (or at least I am) at our most vulnerable parenting place when misplaced sticks or left behind equipment can send even the most patient of parents into a fit. And then there are the hours we spend lingering, in the grill, in the arcade, observing the growing bond between the boys, each of us feeling our hearts swell a bit as we see them make something out of nothing. To be honest, many days we may speak very little to one another. But that seems to matter not a bit. I sink into their presence like a warm bath. Without knowing anything they have become familiar to me, the smell of an old church, holy and ancient.
Max was smashed in the face at this last game. An opposing player hit him in the face with his stick and knocked him to the ice. As he lay on the ground, sobbing and indignant, 12 players dropped to a knee and waited as though they were one, connected by an unspoken code of team. And in the stands, 12 hearts stopped beating until he rose up and skated to the bench with his coach, connected we were by our common experience of loving these boys and worrying about the crash of body against boards, every time any of one of them goes tumbling. As I wandered to the bench to check, 12 hands reached out to touch my shoulder. “I know” each hand seemed to whisper.
This is how tribe is built. Not through grand visions and plans and mission statements but through the simple act of going about life together, side by side. Breathing in each others presence, as simple as that. Doing the chores, no matter our moods or state of wakefulness. Tying skates and distributing juice boxes, with kindness and an awareness that every boy, every parent, is needed to make this thing go, each one of us, no matter who we are outside the rink, there matters. Organizing equipment and running clocks with the simple kindness that comes from simply accepting, “Oh–there you are.” No story, just you. And that awareness, that acceptance–that my friends is love.
I have felt so lucky to have found my chosen family here in my neighborhood, the ones I call my tribe. The families we camp with and dine with, the ones who I love so deeply and profoundly, who know me so well, with whom my heart cracks open. The ones who share my political views and parenting values and don’t mind my beat up broken down car, who look past my mess and old furniture and clutter to see my spacious heart. The ones whose homes I retire to when all feels lost, or maybe just the electricity is off. Each one of them feels handpicked and special and deliberately inserted into my life. To have found them feels like a miracle, an impossible surprise of utter goodness.
And yet, I am beginning to see that this gift is not a requirement for tribe to really bloom. Our connectedness is a given. Its our separation that is the illusion. Home is any place where we are side by side pulling our weight. We only need to look up and see the person next to us, doing what we are doing to realize our shared humanity, to feel in the company of strangers, completely at home.