The sky shifts and stretches, and sunlight spills through the elongated gaps. It’s still too hazy to see the mountains, but light is reflecting off a hundred smoking chimneys and dancing on a million silvered olive leaves, and I think I might take my coffee—a regrettable but necessary second cup—out into the joy of it. I make it nearly two steps onto the balcony before my Texas bones start shaking in protest. Sunny or not, this is still the crux of winter, and I in my morning zombie trance am no match for the cold.* I retreat to the kitchen table, backhand a swath of crumbs out of my way, and sigh long and deep.
* Disclaimer: I realize that my calling a sunny Mediterranean winter “cold” is causing some of you to smash your heads repeatedly into your desks right now. I apologize for any resulting trauma and invite you to come sunbathe on our balcony at your convenience.
I’m in so many mental ruts right now, ruts within ruts, that it’s hard to distinguish which one is suddenly closing the walls of our kitchen around me. My eyes wince across the trail of soup pots and mixing bowls waiting to be washed. In the next room, laundry is draped over radiators to dry; another load sloshes in the washer, and my lungs feel like they’re wrapped in damp socks. Chores multiply like rabbits around here in the winter, and beating them off with a broom could be my full-time job. I wonder if it is. Last week while reading a picture dictionary to Sophie, I asked her if she knew any janitors, and she answered brightly, “Yes, you!” And yet our floors still feel like syrup and sand and one has to use parkour to navigate the guest room and mealtimes feel like punishment.
This is a doozy of a rut, this resentment of my domestic life and its endless repetitions of damage control. Home should feel like sanctuary, so I try to distract myself from the messes spawning like video game villains across my universe. However, distraction turns out to be its own form of rut; my mind wanders and flits until I realize with a jolt that I haven’t felt my own soul’s pulse in weeks.
I should have picked up on it earlier, the very minute that the dust congregating on our windowsills became a universe to me. Even as I say that though, I recognize that I have no easy answers for how to push back at the shinkwrap, how to keep filling my lungs with the air of a wide wide world while the four walls of our house clamor so loudly and the cold seals them shut.
Yesterday, I read a bit from two women whose words light fires inside of me, and for those ten minutes, my heart remembered how to move again. It pumped away my zombie fog and stretched out, out, beyond our sleepy Italian valley and the mountains standing guard, out across oceans, out past the stars. My universe expanded to make room for eternity, and the only thing I could ask beyond that is the strength to hold onto it more than ten minutes at a time.
I’m writing now from the bittersweet place of awareness without answers, trapped in a rut with eyes full of stars. I know who I am—the true me, the eyes-wide-open me who isn’t afraid her life’s work will boil down to laundry—but I’ve never worked out just how to keep those fires lit. One of Shame’s favorite adjectives for me is “selfish,” and I hear it now in the clacking of the keys while the soup pots go unwashed. I hear it in the turning pages of a book and in the stillness of attempted meditation, in any pursuit of my own personal peace. The clock becomes a rushing sound in my ears, and I scramble to get back to the duties that pile around my vision like blinders.
Or… I write, because Shame is not going to stop advancing any sooner than the laundry pile is, and if I’m willing to hinge my worth on damage control, why not start with the soul-damage? Why not battle to climb out of the rut instead of battling to keep it mess-free?
This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I know the answer, and the answer is Shame itself. Shame is the bully pinning us down while taunting, “Why don’t you just get up?” Shame is the dictator citing himself as the source of truth. Shame is the fear profiteer. Shame is what makes us feel unworthy to fight the burden of unworthiness, and how do you pull yourself up from that if not by looking the bully square in the eye, saying his name out loud—S C R E A M I N G it if necessary!—and informing him that he no longer calls the shots?
Here is what I know to be true:
- No one will die if the dishes go unwashed until tomorrow (although I reserve the right to boycott the kitchen in the meantime). Repeat: No one will die.
- My soul will die, slow and purpling like frostbite, if I don’t allow her the unhurried time she needs to connect with God, refresh her focus, and do what her heart is nudging her to do.
- Sometimes that will mean half an hour; sometimes it will mean the entire day.
- That is not selfish.
- It’s not selfish because a whole and peaceful me brings direct good to the world around me, even the little one within our walls, while a resentful and distracted me spreads negativity.
- It is much easier to keep eternity in my perspective when I’m prioritizing the eternal things—soul-ties, relationships, art, justice, kindness—and letting Mount Laundry take whatever energy I have left over. Not the other way around.
- Shame has no redeeming characteristics. Not a one. I will gain nothing by listening to it, ever. That voice sneering at me that I’m selfish and worthless and a big fat failure? deserves no acknowledgement other than a big fat ass-kicking.
- Shame might masquerade as a bully or a dictator, but I can always recognize Truth; it’s the one shifting and stretching my mind, spilling light through the elongated cracks, lighting fires, imparting courage.
What do you know to be true despite Shame telling you otherwise?
I’m startled by my own weight when the alarm rings and dragging myself up through gravity feels like dueling a rip tide. This isn’t the kind of heaviness that spins the needle on our bathroom scale, though I’m surprised it doesn’t; it feels so tangible, a lead apron clinging to my bones.
I don’t need a scale to tell me I’m off the chart in soul-kilos though. I recognize the heft of each and every piece in this baggage set—
fear of who might be lurking on the other side of a shadow
anxiety over a future that refuses to be planned
disoriented terror that flits from potential disaster to potential catastrophe
every opinion formed about me that I’ve accepted as my identity
every opinion I’ve formed of others that reflects more on myself
dependence on a houseful of breakable, stealable things
my list of wants and the moving target at the end
this worry I carry around like a custom-fitted brick around my heart
stress, stress, stress
and my arch-frenemy, the compulsion to Fit In
They’ve traveled with me into the new year, and here I am, startled by my own weight when I try to lift myself out of bed, up from the table, off the sofa. It’s too much, it’s all too much, and the truth I’m trying to lift my head enough to see is that not a piece in the set is mine to lug around.
I’ve been wrestling with my “one wild and precious life” more than usual lately, and some Big Thoughts are coming to the surface, some surprising twists of perspective that I need to spelunk properly before I share. If I’m a little quieter than usual, that is why; spelunking is a mysterious and silent art, after all. I do know this though—each step back to take in a new angle is a step closer to returning a lighter woman than before.
Busy. Quiet. Mournful. Excited. Pulled into the glitter and joy and inevitable bustle of Christmas. Drawn back into the shadow and heartsickness of death. Dizzy from to-dos and not-dones (mostly the latter). Apprehensive about all the possible wrong turns a holiday can take. Tip-toeingly thrilled regardless. Heavy. Springy. Awhirl.
Today’s my day off from writing—a day allocated for errands and ironing and all manner of riffraff that didn’t get seen to during the week. Yet I can’t not write today. I have a desperate desire to make sense of yesterday’s massacre, though I realize there is no sense to be made, nothing that could possibly make the murder of twenty young children into something as succinct and graspable as sense. Still, writing down the whirlwind in my head makes it easier to keep my footing. A little.
I have a kindergartener, and I don’t say this to claim dibs on grief or to cheapen a single facet of people’s heartache or even to play the I’m-so-glad-it-wasn’t-my-child card that has to twist dagger sharp in the ears of bereaved parents. I say it because my kindergartener trotted off to class yesterday morning hand-in-hand with a friend, their little heads bobbing in enthusiasm, and that that could have been a death march… that we live in a world where a room of bright and busy and trusting five-year-olds can be sprayed with .223-caliber slugs… it’s unendurable.
This heartbreak feels so literal, the actual sinews in my chest threatening to rip loose, and I know you’re feeling it too. We’re all breaking apart and trying to hold ourselves together in different ways, whether by anger or action or silence or advice or prayer or time with loved ones or time alone. My social media feeds are full of opposing viewpoints, but they all come from a similar ferocity of grief, and I’m comforted, like Mr. Rogers, by seeing “so many caring people in this world.”
Every one of us is shouldering a tiny portion of the pain that the Newtown parents are going through right now. Every one of us is united in grief, though we might process it very differently (and that’s ok). Evil was done yesterday, and we care. It doesn’t make sense of the violence and pain we experience to different degrees in this broken world, but it does lighten the load.
I’m grateful to care alongside you.
My mind weighs more than it should today. I have to concentrate to hold it upright and centered above my shoulders instead of sinking a slow depression between them. The #adventwindow words have gotten me again. This time, it’s “choose”—a dare, a remonstrance, a permission ripe for the picking. I’ve been staring at it for three days now, this weighty word pasted to an otherwise empty page, and the only response I’ve conjured up is a question: How?
This year, more than just about any other in my memory, has been strung up like a commercial trawling line with others’ expectations for me. I would say I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve let down this year, but this isn’t the kind of thing easily forgotten. I can recall every email, every phone conversation, and every hard-staring face that has let me know I am not entitled to my own decisions.
As much as I value honest writing, this blog isn’t the right place for sharing these particular details, for rehashing every he-said-she-said and amassing indignation. Part of me would love to vent, get a flurry of “You’re clearly in the right!” sympathy comments, and then return to the mess of life in a protective aura of superiority. However, the other, wiser part of me knows that venting is a demolition tactic, not a restorative measure, and that it simply isn’t who I am.
Who-I-am is a relentless seeker of purpose and perspective, and that means digging past crumbled emotions to locate the foundation beneath. I have to confess though—I’m stumped when it comes to “choose.” So many decisions in my life right now seem armed to the teeth. In work, relationships, and even service opportunities, my path has already been chosen by others who are ill-prepared to hear me say “no.” These aren’t usually people I can just ignore or write out of my life, and their disappointment with me registers in the same sharp key as regret. The more firmly I try to plant my feet in the best decision for myself and my little family, the more I feel like a traitor… and the more I realize that the other party wants me to feel that way.
This scenario never fails to send my thoughts into a tailspin. Am I letting myself get bullied into a powerless version of my own life? Am I letting my soul get trampled in my quest not to disappoint anyone else? Or… is this just a normal part of living in community and loving others well? Is the regret I feel a healthy reaction to my own selfishness? Is it that I’m divvying up my “one wild and precious life” to the most insistent bidder, or is it that I’m clinging to my own minor wishes above the wellbeing of others? Is my people-pleasing guilt instructive or destructive?
I really don’t know. I rewind situations even as recent as this week and play back my words in slow, critical motion. How could I have held my ground instead of caving into pressure and agreeing to the other party’s terms? How could I have asserted my decision without sparking resentment? How could I have separated the codependent mesh of friendship and favors so that my “no” would only touch the latter?
As much as I might wish for obvious, quick-fix answers, I realize that isn’t how any relationship works, especially not the one between my mind and my heart. This is the stuff of life and breath and plot-twist and resolution, all of us learning what it means to occupy planet earth together while growing ever more into ourselves. There are no perfect comebacks. I’m never ever ever going to know the right thing to say at the right time, and it’s probably best for my sanity not to figure it out later either.
But still… I really wouldn’t mind having all the hidden motivations and truths of each tense situation laid out in alphabetical order and paired with solutions. I want to have the power to choose how I allocate my time, energy, and resources no matter how anyone tells me I should. I would love the freedom to follow what I call heart-nudges (some people call it divine prompting) without the clamor of differing opinions pulling me off-track. I’d pay big bucks biscotti (hey, it’s what I’ve got) for the assurance that “no” is as valid a word as “yes” and is in fact part of a healthy decision diet.
However, the whole point of “choose” is choice—individual, intentional choice—and it becomes a different beast altogether when I read it as an invitation. Go ahead—choose! Choose choosiness. Choose the power to choose for yourself even when there are no assurances and choice sounds like a trick question and you won’t be able to make everyone or maybe even anyone elsehappy and no one has read you your rights and you know the other party will be grading your decision with a red marker. Choose anyway. You are cordially invited by your value as a human being to pick your own actions differently than other human beings might do on your behalf. No R.S.V.P. required.
I just have to hope that the “how” will come with time.
Do you ever feel like you have little power to decide certain aspects of your life for yourself? How do you navigate the line between selfishness and self-care when your decisions might disappoint others?
One of my girls (and I will leave it to your imagination as to which) has invented a sign of affection known as Pee Kisses. They involve looking deeply into the eyes of a loved one—say, your mother—then tenderly trickling your fingertips all the way down her cheeks. Let me just tell it to you straight: Pee Kisses make me want to throw up and then exfoliate my face in bleach and then throw up again. They are that gross. They are, however, preferable to the facial squishing involved in Poop Kisses, and they don’t give me premonitions of family counseling mandates the way that Anonymous Daughter’s Full Moon Nightly Salute does.
I’d thought that by birthing two daughters, I was avoiding a wide swath of parenting unpleasantness. Burping contests at dinner, bodily-fluid-themed goodnights, spiders on my toothbrush… the kind of horrors I’d always assumed mothers of little boys had to face alone. As it turns out though, children are children, and burping contests are universally hilarious, and mildly arachnophobic mothers are never safe. Never.
Not once in the earliest days of motherhood did I expect that my sweet little girls would one day take some of their greatest delight and personal satisfaction in freaking me out… but on the other hand, I never expected that I would one day take some of my greatest delight and personal satisfaction in egging them on. I have the trauma routine down pat: groan, wring my hands, gag, and then run away to increasing shrieks of laughter. The girls are at their happiest when I act my most horrified because for us, yuck is a love language.
Here’s what I mean—The girls know it’s terribly improper to make fart jokes at the table, which is exactly why they do it… and by picking up the thread of humor they’ve spun, I’m validating their sense of humor and their funny creative minds. I’m showing I genuinely like to be with them. I’m playing with them in a way that comes far more naturally to me than sitting down with a dollhouse does, and my message comes clearly through all the gagging: I love you.
I didn’t know I was going to be this kind of mom. I’d always imagined myself raising children with impeccable manners, to prove I knew what I was doing if nothing else. The mother-self I used to envision was stricter, quieter, and far more on top of everything than this real-self who so often feels like a parenting imposter. I holler at my children, bristle with impatience at times, and forbid them from asking me anything before I’ve had my coffee. I sometimes ask them for help solving their own behavioral challenges because they know as much as I do about navigating our specific parent-child relationship. It’s a learning process, all the time, and the thing I’m learning the most about is myself.
I’m learning that manners are not as important to me as seeing my children’s true personalities in action. I’m learning that very few aspects of our life need to be “non-negotiable” (a word my girls associated with naptime by age 2) and that my opinions do not automatically trump theirs just because I gestated them. I’m learning that I absolutely do not in any way, shape, or form know what I’m doing but that relationships are living things, fluid and adaptable with ample room for grace, and that I would rather be in a position to grow alongside my children than in one to rule over them. I’m learning to see my capacity to show love as a living and adaptable thing as well, a creative force that can rise to any occasion…
…including, but not limited to, Pee Kisses.
What has parenting been teaching you about yourself lately?
The words don’t come easily this afternoon. I’m used to first sentences landing feather-light on my shoulder and tickling my ear with inspiration, or else hiding away as mute and unmovable as a hibernating bear. This is neither. This is more like a blizzard, the air so full of feathers and fur that it succumbs to a wild gravity of its own, a soundless frenzied dance. It makes me feel hopeful and lost at the same time.
Actually, I think that last sentence could sum up just about every aspect of my life right now. Finances, relationships, future prospects, identity… each one ruffles up hope and bewilderment together into a flurry of… well, whatever this is. Bewilderhope? Lostpiration? An epic sneeze waiting to happen?
This might not make a lot of sense given how much my personality resembles that of an aging turtle, but impending change thrills me more than just about anything else. I fear ruts and stagnation and listlessness more than I fear upheaval, so that first electric crackle of change in the air is enough to zap my spine straight. That’s how it is right now—a white-hot disruption in the atmosphere, a spicy hint of goodness, a swirling mass of anything can happen that I take as a promise.
Do you ever feel on the cusp of a different version of yourself? Do you love change or dread it (or float somewhere in between)?
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I’ve spent much of the week doing this:
(and almost equal amounts of this):
Here’s where I disqualify myself from Pinterest forever by admitting that doing crafts with my children ranks somewhere between taking the car to the shop and cleaning shower grout on my list of preferred leisure activities. (At least where the grout is concerned, I’m not left having to explain the permanence of glitter to our landlord.) Scrap paper fills my soul with foreboding, tacky glue with ill-will toward men. When you’re the designated mop wielder and laundry whisperer of the family, few things are more fearsome to behold than a paintbrush in the hands of a happy child.
…Which is why I’ve shocked myself by enjoying every messy, giggle-splattered moment of this week. (Okay, not every moment, but you get the gist.)
Operation Mommy’s Dreaming Of A White Wine Christmas is in full swing, leading us to stock the freezer with yuletide goodies here in November. The whole point is for me to be able to spend the holidays roasting in front of an open fire rather than chipping royal icing off the walls, but I’ve been surprised to discover that this isn’t something I just want to get over with. (The dishes, yesOMGhelp; the Christmas craftery, not at all.) It has been so very… well, fun hanging out for uninterrupted afternoons with my girls, hearing their thoughts on poop (a word invented for the express entertainment of five-year-olds) and boys (she’sonlyinsecondgradeOMGhelp). Even the mess has been fun—the kind of sloppy, delightfully imperfect creativity I hadn’t indulged in decades.
I’m realizing that I owe a large part of my perspective this week to what was happening at this same time last year. I was working outside the home then—teaching English in the mornings and evenings, translating in the afternoons, scrambling to plan lessons and run errands in my time-margins, and having very, very little of myself left for the girls. I was only here to tuck them into bed three evenings a week, and I missed them so heavily that it felt like my heart would collapse in on itself. I didn’t have time to take care of their basic mommy needs, much less to help them paint the kitchen in sugar.
While I might not have turned into the patron saint of carpe diem as a result, the experience did serve as the perfect backdrop for gratefulness. It added the contrast, the depth missing from my perception of our little family circle. Each night after putting the girls to bed this week, I’ve been knocked off my bearings once again by what I can only describe as a wave of wow. An I get to tuck them in wow. An I have time to be an intentional mom again wow. A just… wow wow. And to think it was brought on by something as terror-inducing as craft time…
Grateful today for change, for opportunity, for the delicious tang of adventure.
For laughter ringing like a tuning fork through the dissonance of busy days.
For hearts gift-wrapped in kind words, for all of you brave givers.
For rich flavors and colors and relationships, wealth that outshines money.
For small pleasures, for bewildering beauty, for the goodness cupped in the hands of here, now.
For any reason whatsoever to eat pie.
For all-things-new and the tenacity of hope.
What is making your heart warm today?
A few days ago, as I was rummaging around in the darkest corner of our fridge for the ginger, I found a granddaddy long-legs, its limbs pinched around itself like a claw. It was so unexpected and out of place—this arachnid death-tableau in the crisper drawer—but it struck me immediately as a totem, an image bearer for the memories that have been creeping around my consciousness on skeletal legs these last several days.
I’ve grown unaccustomed to bad memories, healed as I am by years of color and distance and impromptu dance parties. Yes, PTSD is a zombie escape artist who rears through the packed earth every so often to feast on my brains, but the breakouts have become rarer with time, and I simply wasn’t prepared to feel the past whisper-scraping up to me again.
It’s like this:
First, the sound of a lock turning from the inside; stealthy intentions grating against rust. I know what comes next, but I’m slow to react, seconds too late to stop the iron-plated door from sucking suddenly open. And there it is—a memory no longer pinched around itself but extending its claw legs, freezing me in a moment I once fought hard to escape. My perception of the world fractures, and I become the spectator and the victim at once. I relive all the helplessness I felt as a young girl in extreme emotional and physical pain, and then the helplessness of regret. I should have known it wasn’t right. I should have told someone. I should have fought, tooth and nail and voice and soul. Why didn’t I fight?
I know that letting myself get sucked back into that room only does me harm. There is no redemption in unanswerable questions, and their cobwebbed pain will cling to my skin for days after I leave. I do leave though, on the strength of repeat forgivenesses and the strain of personhood that runs deep enough to wake me from dreams. In this case, it wakes me to compassion, and I turn my anger from the child who didn’t know better, who had been taught wrong-as-right and don’t-tell-a-soul all her life. My anger turns away from my former abusers as well. They deserve my anger, certainly, but I’ve expended plenty on them in years past, and grace gives me room to breathe.
As my anger fades to the bigger picture—to religious despotism and church-sanctioned cruelty and this messed-up world where anything can be justified with enough jargon—my memory-cell fades from view, and I hear the door thud shut as if from underwater. There are other doors, of course. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or even an unguarded moment later today, I’ll hear the scratch of spinneret against doorjamb and scramble first to hold the past shut and then to escape it. This is the reality of life after trauma.
But there is also LIFE after trauma, a spacious world of possibility surrounding and surpassing moments of regression. In fact, that’s what I most wanted to put into writing today—that the very best way I’ve found to keep bad memories at bay is to invest myself in the present. Looking into my daughters’ eyes just to study their blue, to count the laugh lines ringing their irises… Folding the laundry with fingertips attuned to the interplay of threads, each filigreed whorl of cotton… Holding the bitter of coffee and the sweet of cane sugar on my tongue a few seconds longer… Pressing snooze to slide like a puzzle piece into the curve of my husband’s back, to soak in our collective warmth before the day… Turning the music loud in my earphones and feeling, with all my heart, the beauty of this unpredictable, compassion-won life I’m living.