My husband and I sat in our driveway, in the front seat of the truck, reluctantly surveying the leaf-filled yard.
“Should we do the leaves?” he asked.
The heaviness of a Sunday afternoon hung like it did when I was young. The clouds loomed gray and thick, as did the Monday morning ahead. I could see puffs of breath escape from Abby and Henry as they ran about the yard, playing.
“Well,” I answered quietly, “it’s not going to get any warmer or drier.”
With two hours of daylight left, we rallied and all headed inside to don old clothes, hats and gloves. The weight of the work ahead slowed me down. The kids’ jubilant exit to the yard and the slam of the garage door echoed in our small mud room. I slowly tied my old tennis shoes, stiff from months of neglect.
I collect heart-shaped items I find in nature. Rocks and shells from my life’s travels sit near my kitchen sink, in a bathroom drawer, and at the bottom of every beach bag. Each time I discover one, I stop and admire. And if I can’t pick the Heart up, I snap a photo. Heart-shaped moss on an ancient tree in Ireland. A subterranean rock, exposing itself to the surface, spotted on my run. Stop, they seem to signal, stop and see. Love abounds. Here’s proof. Blink and you’ll miss it. A small, prideful puff blooms in my chest each time I see one. My eyes and heart are open!, I think, patting myself on the back.
Dusk fell like the leaves in our yard. Crisp, November air pinked my cheeks and my hair stuck haphazardly out of my ski cap. A sharp inhale revealed the scents of a neighbor’s fire and quickly decaying leaves. My crabbiness smoldered with each frustrated leaf-clean-up exertion. Damn do I hate doing the leaves.
“I hate this. I truly hate this”, I yelled to Hubby over the drone of our dueling leaf blowers. “Me too”, he commiserated. Our whiny accord plumed up and away in our exhaled breaths. We turned back to our work, and I to the lonely maze of my mind. There I found remnants of a terse conversation with Hubby. Also vying for attention was Abby and MY GOD did she REALLY leave her backpack there in the family room ALL WEEKEND despite my kind reminders? She so deserved to lose her allowance for THAT. And Henry. Thinks it’s unfair that he has to vacuum the WHOLE damn house? REALLY?!! Each bitter bit collided. I was emotionally hangover, tripping through my negative mental feed.
Practice gratitude, Denise, my thoughts suggested. Blah blah fucking blah, I countered.
You need to try.
So I did. Amidst the mounds of brown, decaying leaves, I tried.
I’m grateful for the oxygen you give us. The shade, too.
I’m grateful for the whooshing crescendo of your leaves dancing on a summer breeze.
I’m grateful for my old jeans and old tennis shoes, not caring that they’re dirty and collecting burrs.
I feel my muffin top and flabby stomach, smooshy in these jeans, each time I move. (Redirecting…)
I’m grateful to have a safe yard in which to rake. I’m grateful for the warm food we’ll eat in our warm home when we’re done. At some point, we’ll be DONE.
I catch a glimpse of our kitchen through the back windows. Damn I hate that curve in those top cupboards. So 1985. (Oops, try again)
I’m grateful for my strong legs and arms, for my eyesight and my health.
A flash of phosphorescent neon disappeared into the growing mountain of brown. A gurgling giggle accompanied the swoosh of Abby and Henry.
I smiled, in spite of myself. I stopped. I saw. Two hearts. The argument with Henry fell away. The snappy snark with which I addressed Abby and her stompty-mcstomp-stomp response fell away. My pissy attitude
A lone leaf fell out of the muted gray.
I was left with a collection of leaves and three, very full hearts.
Whatcha dimbat hougminoimgmmm.
(Clears throat, stretches fingers, preparing to try again.)
So here I sit, diet coke to my left, the wrapper from my Sausage McMuffin with Egg and Cheese to my right. Blinking computer screen to my front. Since I’ve already written about 100 letters, I stretch. Roll my neck. Crack my knuckles.
The cursor blinks. Bblinksblinksblinks. Blinkity Blink. I actually think it’s taunting me. Damn cursor! Nanny nanny boo boo What you write is doo doo. You know what? You’re an ass, cursor.
Can you believe the audacity of this thing? Just blinking and waiting and daring me to write. Really. And then this blank page is just standing by, watching the cursor push me about and does nothing. Nothing!!
Wait!! I know. I’ll go back to my notebook of awesome ideas. Hang on. I’ll be right back.
Ok, I’m back. Hmmmm. Somehow those notebook ideas are less shiny now. Well, any way, how about this one?
My life sits amidst these mundane, rote tasks. The dishwasher. The laundry. My minutes are spent in the folds of each slightly faded tshirt, the pairing of each sock to its mate. Each gesture connecting me to them, threads of everyday woven into their clothes and our lives.
Bricks land on ancient face
Silouhetted in pale eastern light
Small belying strength: stoisism
at the mountain’s foot/
Feet on the ground
Ground meet the feet
Coffee brews cream swirls
TV voices low and murmur
Unrest Murder Genocide Elections
while I split open the english muffin
and push the the toast button
Ambling down my vanilla path
Do I contribute to this larger unrest
by muting those talking heads do I abstain
put my energy elsewhere, into this life,
with the butter
and the dishes in the sink
and the raising of one girl and one boy?
The cursor still blinks. And I just stretched again because really, this has been quite arduous. But I did it. I showed up.
Take that, cursor.
Note: No, I’m not high. I’m just practicing this fine art of Writing Again and I’ve been wanting to write a super poignant, Really Great Blog Post and it’s just not coming so instead of not writing anything, again, I’m writing something. I’m practicing. Kinda like instead of a throwing a full blown dinner party, just having people over for an after dinner drink in sweat pants, and just wiping down the bathroom counter and maybe lighting a candle instead of going bonkers and preparing like crazy.
The certainty and physicality of you were evident–your beach-ball perch on my lower abdomen made people reach out and touch you. You were charismatic and magnetic, even in utero.
Eight years ago, I filled my brain with questions surrounding your birth, your delivery and your arrival to this spot on our spinning, kaleidoscope of life. Who would you be? What would it be like to be a mother to you, a son?
The eve before your birth, Daddy and I drove to the hospital with our potent anticipation of your arrival as our companion. Heat filled the heavy, June, Arkansas night. Eight years ago, my body housed you, fed you, supported you and kept you warm. I felt each movement and turn.
Eight years ago, you entered my world and lodged yourself securely into my soul, becoming an anchor whose presence I hadn’t previously known was missing. Oh, I thought as I reached out and took you from the doctor’s hands, as I saw your scrawny body for the first time, Oh, you. There you are.
Recently, someone asked me to describe you. How, I wondered, do I wrap the essence of you into a byte-sized blurb?
Your curiosity and drive to understand the workings of the world are powerful. If I could shrink myself down and follow the contours of your creative, cerebral activity, I would. Any random afternoon will find you building a thing–a sword, a contraption– or breaking down a thing–a box, a pencil, a container, a lego structure. When you sit down to create a painting or drawing, when I ask what you’re making, your reply is, “I’m not sure. I’m just making it.” The results are always unique and usually beautiful.
You spend long stretches looking out the window, quietly thinking and then, suddenly, you’ll ask me a question such as, “Who was the first person on Earth?” or, “When you look at this wall, do you see the same things, do they look the same to you, as they do to me?”, or “What does an ovary do again?”
I remember once we were in a children’s hospital waiting room, awaiting a meeting with a doctor. You were two, maybe two and a half, and you kept watching a teenager who sat in the waiting room, too. This boy’s head hung down, his chin almost rested on his chest. His shoulders slumped, rounding his back in defeat. You, Henry, without even looking at me first, waddled over to this boy. You, in your round, sturdy body walked over the industrial, low pile carpet and to him. You stood right in front of him, in the stark, fluorescent light. The boy did nothing. You walked closer, so calmly (and trust me, calm really wasn’t your thing at this age), and you placed your chubby, dimpled hands on each of his brooding knees. You watched him until he slowly lifted his head, heavy with his angst and mood. Your eyes met. You, Henry, I swear you pierced his dark cloud and gave him a moment to smile, even if it was the slightest, shruggiest smile I’d seen. You gave him kindness.
You carry this in your heart and your eyes and you pass it along to most people you meet.
When I was a young, new mother, I thought my job was to protect Abby and you from harm. This primordial instinct kicked-in before you were born, when you and I coexisted in symbiotic togetherness. At that point, I could shield you from the bold world. Then you were born and the brazen world loomed. I shielded you from sun, bugs, infections, poisons, accidents, carcinogens and rough clothes. I provided a safe haven, a place for you to come into yourself. But now, I see that I only had part of my job description correct.
I know, now, that I can only, and should only, protect you to a point. Yes, I still protect you from obvious harm. But I have to let you live life. My job, now, is to help you navigate the inevitable bumps of life. The hurts. The heartaches. The disappointments. Sharp words, worry and friendship conundrums. Fights with your sister. Fights with yourself. It’s all normal and while this may seem counter-intuitive, it is GOOD. I am going to hold your hand as long as I can and teach you that this is all an essential part of life.
Imagine a bruise, tender to your touch. Purpley bluish evidence of a strike or blow. It is an oddly shaped a spot to be avoided as it heals. It morphs from blue to yellow, indicating its healing progress. Sometimes, you’ll see the bruises on your body but other times, the bruises will be internal, seen only by your heart, given credence by your emotions. I promise that while these may take longer to heal, they, too, will yield fresh, tender renewal. Yes, you will hurt. Sometimes, you will be brought to your knees. And much to my maternal chagrin, I cannot, and should not, protect you from the very things that will strengthen and embolden you.
Yes, these experiences will bring you bruises. But they’ll also yield tenderness and grace. Your seventh year provided many opportunities for you to learn this very lesson. To hurt, heal, and grow.
A move away from the only home you’ve known to a new city, school, house and friends. New everything. Then, this winter, a skiing accident and a spiral tibial fracture, yielding eight weeks of crutches and just as many of physical therapy. Not only did your leg break, but you bruised your spirit a bit.
And now. Just days after your eighth birthday celebrations have ended, I want you to know this: I see you. I see the strength in your stance. I see experience and wonder in your eyes. I see a stronger, more able-bodied version of you. Not in spite of your experiences–but BECAUSE of them. And you.
I love you forever.
Thanks to my friend Lindsey for the inspiration to write a birthday letter post.
Writers, and their relationship with the page, fascinate me. Getting to peek behind the finished words of writers I admire–to see their beginnings, middles and ends — is such a treat. So when the Writing Process Blog Tour started, I gulped up the passages. I was especially tickled when Kristen Levithan at Motherese asked me to participate. Kristen is a light for me — her writing is beautiful, honest and intelligent. I often nod as I read, thinking, Oh, me too, me too. Our blogship blossomed to friendship, and knowing she’s out there in my world softens my edges and my heart.
Childhood (and it’s ensuing companion, parenthood) comprises of millions of moments–the anticipation of firsts, the trepidation of lasts and all the living we do in-between. Those days string together forming months that stumble into (gasp) years.
Brain, Child, Magazine, has compiled This Is Childhood–10 authors commemorating these glorious years of childhood with essays exploring ages one through 10. An amazing keepsake, including a place for your own reflections. I’m honored to be included in this collection of essays, alongside some of my favorite writers. This Is Childhood is a great gift idea for Mother’s Day– or maybe even Just Because– because, as we all know, time goes quickly whether we take time to stop and notice, or not.
February embraced me with her gray folds. Hibernation-worthy fatigue walloped me after a harsh winter and, frankly, a long year. Looking back, I could see why I was exhausted. Surgery. Recovery. A cross-country move. A CROSS-COUNTRY MOVE. Heart-breaking goodbyes, soul-mending hellos. Card board boxes. Fucking boxes. Unknown quantities of pizza. Big changes. Small changes. Using GPS to get everywhere in a city that, while new, feels familiar with the sturdy, Midwestern sensibilities of my youth. Being the New Girl. Again. Navigating social circles. Again. A broken leg for Henry–a full-leg cast and crutches through the mounds of January snow. Abby was sick. Henry was sick. Abby was sick. Henry was sick. Hubby was sick. Then I got sick. The temperatures hovered around zero for weeks. I didn’t write. I didn’t run. I ate many french fries and drank red wine and my muffin top flourished.
I judged the progress I made with my new life and our new home. I judged the lack of it, too. I judged my emotion and judged how slowly my To Do list shrank–if anything, I watched it grow exponentially each day, becoming a serious contender for my muffin top. I struggled to feel as if I progressing.
Judge judge judgity JUDGE.
Beginning again. Starting the momentum, gaining the energy to sustain. When at the beginning, it seems that beginning again is the hardest part.
I stand in the vestibule outside my Yoga class. I begin to shed my exterior winter armor and whittle down to a tank and black leggings. The hushed greetings of students mill about. My winter skin glows garishly. I pad, bare-footed, across the hard floor, dodging puddles of melted snow on my way into the studio. I find a spot near the wall, slightly separated from the other students, slightly alone.
I unroll my mat and thawp it down on the floor. I love the certainty of this sound, mat to ground. I find my shoulders, standing attention at my ears. My life, stresses and the past year are very much alive in knotted colonies in my muscles. Rock like, rigid, terse.
From several mats away, a fellow student enviably exhales as she lays in repose, awaiting the commencement of our practice. I am jealous of her languid exhale as my staccato breath punctuates the calm, open room. Subtle incense burns.
I step gingerly onto my mat, a vessel with a destination in which I’ve placed a lot of stock–delivery back to myself. I try to stretch iron chains, tangled and rusty from misuse and neglect. My knees pop in the silence. A dust mote saunters by.
A thick, stubborn, glacier-like dam resided at the end of our driveway. A temporary break in the frigid temperatures (a balmy 38 degrees F) yielded a brief thaw. I stood at the end of my driveway, surveying the ice dam. It was just me and a big shovel, slowly chipping away at the ice. A brave bird chirped. I lowered and lifted the spade. Slowly. Repetitively. I began to enjoy the methodical work which I knew would make some dent in the ice. I shed my coat as the physical labor warmed me. I paused and turned my face to the golden, late afternoon sun.
Returning to my work, I listened to the comforting gurgle of melting snow and ice, trekking downhill to hidden tributaries below. I surveyed the black slush, the marred shoulder of my street, the gravel, the fray of this winter. The fray of this life.
Ever since the last box left my house, I’ve been practicing yoga. The yoga poses have started to become more comfortable and familiar and have lost their intimidating edge. During my practice, my thoughts monkey about, tapping my mind like a petulant child,
Should we get a Lulu tank? Everyone has one and they loooove them.
You need to schedule your mammogram.
Loooook, she knows all the poses.
You need a pedicure!
Nice effort, muffin top. Way to gain the real estate.
I’m hungry. Are you? Can we get french fries after this?
I try to release them. I shoo them away.
Each time I come to my mat I am amazed at how long it takes me to join my physical body in the present. And once I am fully present in that stark yoga studio, tears often come. Like buried bulbs, my emotions unfurl in the warmth of my attention. They stretch into the room, into my consciousness, into the light. My teacher guides me into this foreign terrain, the fertile ground of my experience. There I twist, raw emotions and muck tumbling out into the room, onto my mat, down my face IN PUBLIC. Then, I worry. I worry that my fellow students will hear my emotion and that I will disturb their practice.
My teacher guides us to child’s pose and I rest with my knees pointed east and west, my forehead on my mat. She begins reading a passage and her words reach me, open and splayed on the ground:
There is Buddhist story about the lotus and the mud, an ancient anecdote which chronicles the necessity of the dark, fecund mud to produce the glorious lotus bloom. The mud. The lotus.
It seems as if her words have been selected just for me. I’ve been tilling this fertile soil, layering the compost of stress and life so I can wriggle my toes, spread my roots and bloom.
The sun beats down on my face and my feet are grounded firmly in the mud. The moments of grace exist within this regular life, filled with normal challenges and frustrations. The warm connection of new friendship. The solid comfort of tenured friendships, physically connected again. Dissonance. Gratitude. Stress. Joy. Happy Sad. The satisfaction of having Made It Through. Watching the walls of a house transform from a place to a home.
The dark, rich, fecund muck.
Stretching, reaching, growing.
And, the resulting, beautiful blossom.
Most of my words exist either electronically or in the long-hand scrawl of my journals. Rarely do I see my words in print. On paper.
This week, I got to do just that.
I may have purchased several copies. I may have secretly wished that someone–the Target check-out clerk?–would ask me why I had so many copies of Parents Magazine in my cart. I may have displayed the stack of magazines to my family and may have done an extremely silly rap/song/dance in the kitchen as Hubby, Abby and Henry watched on. Henry may have drummed an awesome riff to accompany my rap.
This piece is near and dear to my heart because it delves into the nitty and gritty of being an imperfect parent living a real life–which, I believe, is fairly universal. We all encounter the fallibility of this human existence, every day.
You can read it here. Or, in the April issue of Parents Magazine.