The Stillness and Beauty Amidst Canning for Winter

Where do I begin? Somehow, it has been 21 days or so since I last wrote here. I don’t know how that is possible. This month has been like following an uneven path toward destinations both planned and still unseen.

I sit here in my new home office. It’s a place that I can’t get enough of, honestly. It’s cliche to say I have a room of my own, I know. (Would Virginia Woolf be glad about that?) But having this space feels as figuratively significant as it is necessary for synchronous online teaching.

The summer is ending and in some ways is over. And I keep reading and hearing about people’s experiences of not having a summer, of being robbed of one. I know that resonates with me, to some degree. As I write that, however, my mind flashes to sunshine and hiking trails. To my son wading in the creek. To too many baked brownies. To evenings on the deck. Admittedly, though, no sooner had we purchased water shoes and a fishing net than we were planning for the school year — carefully organizing our living space to provide adequate privacy for all.

Overall, this summer was like canning fruit for winter. And the tops to the jars are still not on; the labels yet to be printed. My son’s room still has books on the floor that need shelving. Old furniture sits in the hallway in need of storing. It’s funny how in order to create order, we need to endure a season of chaos and upheaval.

But this summer has been more productive for my family than most. So, it’s been a great season of change and reflection for us. I am not mentioning the difficult stuff here, but there has been plenty of stress, tears, and heartache as well. We are human after all. If we had gotten through what is hopefully the first and last pandemic summer unscathed, then I think I would worry about our sanity even more.

Although the beginning to the school year has brought on sadness (we are still “here”, wading through the muck as a society), this lavender room that I am typing in reminds me how simple it is to find stillness and beauty.

The Other Side
Hidden
Evening
Waiting
Gratitude

It’s beginning to rain now as remnants from Hurricane Laura push through the land. Rainy days still evoke that feeling of being held in a cocoon. Suddenly, being enclosed together feels like safety, like love, like nostalgia for those living under our own roofs.

A small cup of being human

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Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes

 

I spend a lot evenings on my porch, alone. I lie down in our Pawley’s Island hammock, a gift from my Mother years ago. Pawley’s Island is famous for their hammocks, and the small island off the South Carolina coast has been part of my family’s history for decades. My grandparents owned the iconic Pawley House once upon a time. But I digress.

I lie on this hammock at night, watching the sun set or tracing the Big Dipper, depending on the time of day, and listen to my latest audio book. Right now, it’s Jennifer Pastiloff’s memoir, On Being Human. I have enjoyed so many essays on her website The Manifest-Station over the years, but I have to admit, I wasn’t that into reading about her life. The truth is, Jennifer is “out there” in a way that sometimes makes me uncomfortable — posting a photo of herself with what looks like a popped zit on her fact, for one. The uptight, judgy judger inside me scowls at things like this. She rolls her eyes and thinks, ‘Oy vey. I am so much better than her/it/everything.’ That judgy voice is wrong.

If you aren’t familiar with Jennifer Pastiloff, she is a life coach who hosts yoga workshops around the globe on precisely this very thing — “being human.” Her workshops are part yoga, part writing therapy, and 100% connecting with others and moving past limiting self-views. I know someone who attended one years ago, and she said it was everything and more than she thought it would be.

So, Jennifer’s memoir documents her journey to becoming a life coach, including her scarred childhood — namely, suffering through her Dad’s untimely death and hiding the fact that she was partly deaf. Can you imagine? Not being able to hear well and not telling anyone? Or losing “your” person at age eight?

Anyway, it’s been a lovely read thus far, and I recommend it, especially for anyone needing a reminder to cease the negative self-talk. Anyone who needs a push in rewriting their own script.

“Buy your fear a cup of coffee and show it how it’s done.” – Jennifer Pastiloff

How the pandemic is leading us home

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Photo by Verena Yunita Yapi

 

It’s been so difficult to write during the pandemic. I haven’t been showing up to write very often, and honestly, a big part of me just don’t care about this. I used to have all of these aspirations of writing and continuing to improve upon my craft, but once the pandemic hit, those aspirations seemed so unimportant. Can you relate?

Instead, these are the questions that plague my mind right now: “What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go?” (Sabrina Orah Mark).

And just as I begin to ponder such questions, my 10-year-old son bounds down the stairs.

The quote above is from Mark’s amazing essay “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over.” in The Paris Review this past May, wherein, among other meaningful things, Mark illustrates how much life has changed since the pandemic hit. It’s a bloody brilliant piece of writing that questions the life in academia she was striving for, allowing readers to question their own goals, their own paths. Allowing them to realize how, in fact, all of the striving has led us here. Right back home.

At the heart of my pandemic experience lies an ever-evolving appreciation for the present moment and everything in my immediate surroundings: my home and everything in it, basically. There is an entire universe going on in here that the outside world used to pull me away from so regularly. During these days of “isolation,” I am finding solitude. I am finding the silence between the notes, the breath between the words. And I go back to Mark’s sentiments again and again, “Fuck the break. The bread is over.”

This isn’t to say that all goals are out the window. Rather, it’s to say I understand once again the things that really matter, and those things don’t have to do with titles, salaries, or bylines. They don’t have to do with the validation of the outside world. I matter because I matter, not because someone else has deemed me worthy. (Worthy of what, I might add?) No one else gets to determine my worth – or yours.

“And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, are mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive,” continues Mark. This is how I see it, too. The cosmos, God, the universe, whatever you want to call it, is fighting to stay alive inside us. Is calling on us to rethink and relearn what it means to be human.

Leading us right to where we began, before the pushing and pulling, the shoulds and should nots. Leading us right back home.

You Don’t Have to Be Good

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I have been rewriting Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” for our current times. Actually, that’s not true. I just had the idea a second ago and will be making it up now. So, picture me grabbing your hand, friend, or smiling at you through FaceTime as I pull you along with me.

Here is a picture of my face. Only, this was before my husband’s health club, TrueBody, closed. It’s okay, he got another job. Boy, though, the week he was unemployed was a killer. These pandemic times are no joke.

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So, here we are, you and me.

What you can’t see in my face is the anxiety I was suffering at the time. It’s still there, the anxiety (my co-pilot for decades now), but a month ago, when I took this selfie during a solo hike, it was like a raging sea that the sun and the breeze had momentarily stalled.

Let’s get to it, though, shall we? I have something boiling on the stove…

Have I mentioned Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” in these pages lately? I am losing my memory along with all sense of time. Actually, that’s not entirely true either. I know it’s July. And I think we are in the year 2024 by now.

As I was saying, the lines in Oliver’s poem that have stuck with me forever are the opening ones: “You don’t have to be good/You don’t have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert.” (And you can even eat cake. I added this last part.)

When I encountered this poem, perhaps during graduate school, in my very early thirties, I would re-read those lines each day for a long number of days, or weeks, or likelier, months. I had wanted forever to be told I didn’t have to be good, for once. The message of “being good” that was hammered into me/us felt so restrictive. I wasn’t allowed to just be me. I was “supposed” to be something. And that was “good.”

Oliver is one of those writers who gave me permission not to be. Basically, she gave me permission to not have to like everything. To say when something sucked. To acknowledge that life was so damn hard sometimes.

So, let’s just admit it for a second. Life has been so damn hard for many us, for a myriad of reasons. You don’t have to be destitute or in poverty to have struggled either. You don’t have to “walk through the desert” to prove you are worthy of struggle.

Since Oliver is no longer with us, I am going to give a modern take on her message. Here goes:

You don’t have to be good.

You don’t have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert

(or through any other damn place).

You don’t have to keep a record of your child’s screen time.

You don’t have to talk to people or read the news.

Sometimes, you don’t have to get off the couch.

You don’t have to beat yourself up for the extra glass

of wine or beer, or the extra shot.

You don’t have to hold yourself to such high standards.

You are still pretty.

You are still loved.

Your friends still exist even if you can’t hug them.

You don’t have to let others tell you what to do or how to be.

You get to make your own choices.

This is your pandemic, baby. Just take care of you.

(We will still be here when this is all over.)

 

 

Why you should have boundaries

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Photo by Josh Hild

I am upstairs in my bedroom with my favorite cat, Blue, curled up in front of me. The window shades are open, and light is pouring in. Eric is downstairs teaching Tai Chi in our living room. Asher, our 10-year-old son, is in his room with the door shut.

This is what the new normal has been looking like.

Another new normal for me is I am learning to own my storiesor more of them. You can read some of those stories on this blog under “Other Places I Write.”

Nonetheless, we all have a lot stories right now. The past few months have felt like years, haven’t they? For many of us, we have had to deal not just with a pandemic but also with a compilation of stress and heartache. That sort of makes it sound like a CD, and I am good with that.

The thing is, I had a series of life events pile up and reached a place where my inner resources seemed to dry up. Now, I am slowly rebuilding them again. Thus, I am trying to focus on the positive. What is “the positive,” you might ask? For me, it is this present moment. There is so much joy if you look around – and feel your feet. If you breathe in some long, deep breaths. If you go outside and dig your hands into the garden.

I had a magical experience of “now” when washing my car recently. I think the last time I washed a car was when I was 9. When my Dad lived with us, washing cars was a big pastime for him — and a necessary chore for my brother and me.

One sunny day last week, I knew I needed to move. Sitting around was encouraging my head to spin. So, I simply decided I was going to wash the car. I filled up a bucket of water, added a little organic soap, applied sunscreen to my face and neck, and popped in my earbuds. Then, I washed.

Moving the body is helpful for anxiety, as you may know. Movement helps calm our nerves. For one, it scratches the itch for that “flight or fight” response we have. It’s no wonder that actually running or biking away up the hill can help us feel calmer. We have the sensation of fleeing from our predators. And our nervous system relaxes.

Predators, though. Deciding what those are can be challenging for a person with anxiety, so we learn to manage, hopefully. We find tools. We meditate. We run. We wash cars. And so on.

It’s easy to let this pandemic thing turn into a tidal wave, an emotional onslaught, a deluge of information. This is particularly true when those around you and those you know and love are responding differently than you.

How we handle the pandemic has almost become like an identifier, a political affiliation, a club. But let’s not allow that to determine our behavior.

I learned the hard way that giving in to either your own internal pressure or the pressure from the outside world can have serious consequences. You just might find yourself face-planting in the middle of the kitchen floor, and that is not a good look for anyone.

Here are a few things that have been helping me find my footing again, offering rungs on the ladder:

  • Brene Brown’s podcast, “Unlocking Us:” https://brenebrown.com/podcast/introducing-unlocking-us/ – Who doesn’t love Brene? Her wisdom, calm, and humor are inspiring. She makes you feel less alone.
  • Sue Monk Kidd’s book, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Directions for Life’s Sacred Questions (also on Audible) – Sue Monk takes the reader right into her personal crisis of identity and faith. I have really resonated with this one right now.
  • Mary Oliver’s book of essays, Upstream – This one helps bring us into the now and explores the beauty – and spirituality – of the natural world.
  • Queer Eye TV show on Hulu – The show is five seasons in, but I have just discovered it. If you want to be immersed in a world of positivity and sheer acceptance and love, then this one is for you.

“To know exactly where you are headed may be the best way to go astray. Not all who loiter are lost.” – Sue Monk Kidd

Turning Ten and A Long Way from Asheville

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I made a “red velvet” cake, Asher’s favorite. But it turned out to be brown inside. Oops! I tried.

 

My boy turned 10 yesterday. TEN. As you can see, my best intentions didn’t pan out, but the cake was still delicious.

This year, Asher had an online Fortnite “party” and then a Zoom gathering of friends while only he ate cake and pizza. In that order. Not exactly typical. But what is typical?

I am beginning to think that nothing ever is. Nothing ever goes as planned. Life is always turning in an unexpected direction. Quick anecdote: My brother Roger and I were once driving from I can’t remember where to our Dad’s house in Asheville, North Carolina. We were driving at night, and the mountain roads were windy. They seemed never-ending. All I remember are crooked, black trees and butterflies gathering in my stomach as the hours went on.

Eventually, we stopped at a gas station, for a map. Yeah, a physical map. When Roger asked the cashier if we were almost in Asheville, she said”Honey, you are a long way from Asheville. You are in Kentucky.” That was one of the moments you hold onto and don’t let go of. And like everything else in time, the details fade the older I get. Hell, that was probably over 25 years ago now. I wonder if Roger remembers. Remind me to ask him.

Needless to say, Asher just turned 10. Here he is the night before his birthday. We had just pushed all the stuffed animals off of his bed in order for him to have fresh sheets for his big day. (He might not approve of the stuffed animal comment, so this is between us.)

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He is getting to that point, where you are constantly surprised at what he has outgrown and equally as baffled by what he still clings to. Baths are another one. He still wants me to be there for them.

I love his young boy “smallness,” and I am almost equally as excited about watching him grow. Watching his mannerisms look more adult. As I was just saying to my husband, Eric, Asher has mostly lost that staring off into space look, the one he would often get at the dinner table, no matter what time of day. If you are a parent, you know the one. And if you aren’t, then it’s an innocent blank stare that reveals nothing and everything at the same time. There is a perfect bliss in that look, a lack of inhibition that, from the outside, seems positively blissful. Unencumbered. Unaware the world is watching him.

During the pandemic, I have had more moments of forgetting the world is watching. I am remembering earlier days from my twenties, when I had months to “waste” on hiking trails and in coffee shops. When I had no money and owned no home. When hiking shoes, a t-shirt, and khakis were my daily uniform. This was before I even knew plucking eyebrows was a thing.

I am remembering what it is to forget, to fall into your own sense of time. I am remembering what it felt like to skate down the driveway, to pick honeysuckles from the vine. To forget anyone is watching.

At any rate, Asher will be spending the summer he turned 10 with his parents; his friends miles away, laughing behind Zoom screens. But I will be able to cherish more moments where his eyebrows and hands do as much talking as his mouth. I will get to listen to his voice continue to change, ever so slightly. I will get to see his eyebrows continue to thicken, and freckles pop up in places I hadn’t noticed before. He now has one above his right eye, as if painted there by God her/him/them self.

I can’t wait to see where one shows up next.

 

Together

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Photo by Shane Rounce

Hey, all! I am re-posting a piece from a year ago because it is so completely apt for this moment. “Togetherness” is certainly the sentiment I want to extend to everyone. Not to mention, I am about to have another essay published on Motherwell! More soon. Here is my post from June 7, 2019:

 

Hello Readers:

I have been avoiding this blog lately. On purpose. And I am sorry if you feel led on. Like you were used to keeping up with me this way. Maybe it’s the only way “we” keep in touch anymore. Or maybe you were led here because you saw this blog in my bio via Scary Mommy, Motherwell, or Mothers Always Write. If you found me on the internet, then bless you for reading. I know there is so much to read out there.

If perchance you are here because of my latest essay on “leaving the fair,” then you might be feeling out of sorts in your midlife body or trying to find some kind of new persona. You probably aren’t sure where to shop for clothes anymore since so few things feel right. You might be surprised that the jeans you put on last week are tight. You are also possibly a health nut who asks wait staff if there is sugar in that.

You likely just finished watching the complete series of Dead to Me and still rock out to nineties (okay, eighties) music, but you are also someone who cares about climate change and ethics. Integrity matters to you.

And your kids, if you even believe in having them, are your greatest achievement. For this reason, climate change – and immigrant children being violated – scare the hell out of you. You probably have a glass of wine at night contemplating how we can live in a world like this one. (I wish you could read my literary essay in Mom Egg Review, for this reason. If so inclined, you can purchase a PDF here.)

I am with you. On all of it.

I want you to know, if you are just meeting me, that I attribute a great deal of my personal success to my husband, and I know that is so not p.c. Life is full of contradictions, however. We are all full of paradoxes. Maybe you too are a strong feminist who feels deeply entwined with your significant other, knowing the ship would go down without him/her.

Maybe you, too, live with certain truths that seem contradictory to others. Maybe you love America but aren’t sure why we have to keep out folks from Muslim countries. Maybe you believe in Jesus but don’t see how God could uphold cruelty, exclusivity, or elitism.

I am with you. On all of it.

I could go on. But possibly like you my son is coming home soon, and then I will be at the mercy of a 9-year-old’s moods, agendas, needs, and so on. So, for now, I just want to say we’re in this together.

Soon, I Will Have an Entire Garden

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Photo by Mona Eendra

Hi, everyone. I hope this post finds you well — and beyond well. Like, handling this situation with grace and ease well. I thought I was. I mean, I was getting there. But we will save that for another time.

In helping myself find some footing today, I wanted to spend time in this space — with you. Whether you are a friend, a family member, another writer, or someone who doesn’t know me from Eve, consider me talking to you right now. Maybe we are sharing a cup of tea. In fact, at this very moment, I am sipping on Lemon Jasmine Green Tea. For real. How about you?

I thought I would share some of the integral things I am learning about myself during this time. Many are things I knew before, but they’re coming to life in new ways, like new species of flowers. Soon, I will have an entire garden.

Essentially, it boils down to the recognition of certain truths. To seeing my limitations, my walls, the ways in which I put on a face for the world, etc. This isn’t to say I am not seeing good things, too, but I have had more time to stare at the gray hairs in the mirror, if you know what I mean.

So, let’s get to it:

  1. I take my Facebook profile pictures in the bathroom with the best light in the house.
  2. I am ridiculously fortunate — and it suddenly feels insane to complain about anything.
  3. I prefer my cat, Blue, to many humans.
  4. It’s hard not to rely on things outside myself to feel good.
  5. Just staying in a mentally good place takes effort.
  6. My body feels old. I ache more than I thought I would at only 47.
  7. Sitting with fear is hard.
  8. I want to be someone who lives with more hope. Is it possible to grow more hope in a time of hardship? I want to grow it and sell it on Etsy.
  9. I want to do more and think less.
  10. To be informed but not to stress about being informed.
  11. Like the character in Fleabag, sometimes I just want to be told what to do.
  12. At this this time when I have more time to put into my son, he is of an age where he wants to spend more time with his earbuds.
  13. I married a really great guy.
  14. His birthday was yesterday.
  15. I am so glad we still have birthdays.

 

Calm and Fear are Contagious

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Photo by Jackson Hendry

Hi, there. I have been here, reader, I just haven’t been able to sit down and write in this space. I have, however, been writing, a little. I took an online writing class with Lilly Dancyger through Catapult, an online literary magazine (and I highly recommend working with Lilly). With hope, I will finish the essay produced during her class in the next week or two and you will see it published soon. Crossing fingers.

Anyhow, what I have spent most time doing, in all honesty, is trying to get back to a pretty good place emotionally since all of this pandemic stuff began. Is that possible? Can any of us be in a good place emotionally? Well, we can certainly have good moments and maybe even good days, right?

As the weeks have inched along (is it week six now?), things have gotten better for me because I was sick early on. The very first week we were home, and bam! It was miserable. I’d gotten to spend a few days having big hopes and dreams of how clean my bedroom closet could become, of how I could finally plant a vegetable garden, and of how many cool science projects I’d create with my son. And then, I got sick, and anxiety set in. I mean, the kind of stress that interrupts sleep and stiffens your neck and chest muscles. (I am currently still taking Ambien to help me feel more chilled at bedtime.)

So, I was stuck in sick mode for a while. But things turned around. My acupuncturist gave me some herbs that helped push out the fever and end the stagnation. I tell you this because Chinese medicine has often been more effective for me than Western medicine for curing mood issues, migraines, digestive problems, pre-menopausal woes, and now, a stubborn virus that seemed unfazed by cold medicines and antibiotics.

Needless to say, I thought perhaps I was done sharing in this space. After I got well, I was enjoying the introspection and the silence that this time began to allow, and I didn’t want to turn outward, at least not until tonight, when I listened to an episode from Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast entitled “Brene on Anxiety, Calm and Over/Under-Functioning.”

What she taught me tonight – or perhaps just articulated for me – was how contagious both anxiety and calm are. Haven’t you noticed this, especially during this present moment? The first weekend after schools were closed, I read a hysterical post on my neighborhood website. Someone was scolding parents for allowing their teenagers to play on the basketball court. In their defense, the boys were sweating and all up in each other’s armpits and whatnot, but the tone of this public service announcement was scathing and fearful. All caps were used to emphasize certain words. You know these posts.

I chimed in among the flurry of responses to try and quell the brewing community outrage and hysteria. But I don’t mention this for a pat on the back; I mention it because it relates to Brene’s message. When we see others getting hysterical, she tells us, we tend to respond in turn. We respond to outrage with outrage. On the flipside, however, we also respond to calm with calm. I have witnessed this when talking to someone anxious. By meeting that anxiety with sanity, rationality, or compassion instead of fear, their features soften, their voice gets lighter. (And yes, sometimes, I am the one who is in need of calming – just ask my husband.)

All in all, perhaps each of us can help the world out by passing on calm rather than fear.  Consider this a stone I am throwing in the water, for you.

 

Suffering and Then Rebirth

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Photo by Lucie Hošová

 

I wanted to re-post something I wrote after Passover last year. This idea of suffering and then rebirth feels particularly poignant right now. If you are so inclined, please let me know how you and your family chose to celebrate either Passover or Easter this year.

Here’s the post:

Growing up in a Christian household within a Christian community within a Christian nation, Judaism was something “other,” something foreign, like the dark places in the basement that you condemned as evil. 

I found this out early, when my kindergarten teacher asked if anyone was Jewish. I was perhaps the sole child in the room to raise their hand, shooting up the same hand I placed over my heart during the pledge of allegiance. I felt I knew this answer, and there wasn’t much I knew at 6.

But then, one of my best friends looked me straight in the eye and said, “No you are not! You’re not Jewish.” And there went my mighty declaration, a new window closing. Embarrassment and confusion ensued. If I was not Jewish, then what was I? A Christian, like everyone else? And what did any of it even mean?

So, I married a Jewish man, though not on purpose (I don’t think).

Last night, my lovely husband, Eric, hosted his first Seder at our home. And I have never felt more a part of any holiday in my life.

The Seder, Eric Newdom-style, is an entire ritual, a teaching lesson, a puppet show, a series of wine toasts, and a deep reflection on how the past connects to our current struggles and rebirths. “First the struggle, then the rebirth,” to quote a friend in attendance.

Early on during the three-hour event, guests were called to answer a question about the onset of spring and what this meant. In what way did we survive a personal winter, coming out on the other end to emerge as a new bud? I raised my hand, so to speak, and with assurance revealed the truth of my difficult winter. You see, winter is usually a friend to me; it’s become something of my season. But this one, this one felt like waiting by the side of a hospice patient. Like waiting for news during surgery. Like waiting for a tornado watch to expire.

Needless to say, the coming of spring was a true rebirth. After the first day of 70-degree weather, my leaves shot up out of the ground, raising hands in all directions. I am here. I am ready. (And now, after last night, I might really be Jewish.)

I might really be Jewish echoes through my mind as I feel out this idea like a six-year-old trying on something new. I don’t know what I am exactly. I am not one thing or another, and this is perhaps the struggle. What spring reminds me, though, is that I am here. And I am open. Eager for sunshine. Happy for the rain. Once again, ready for something new.