Is it a totally outrageous and daring idea to believe I am, in my own unique way, a mother? In this family and in the world?
I ponder these questions and other ideas about my role in our family today over at Dharma Mamas.
Is it a totally outrageous and daring idea to believe I am, in my own unique way, a mother? In this family and in the world?
I ponder these questions and other ideas about my role in our family today over at Dharma Mamas.
"Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees." -Rumi
What a strange time - full of madness and fury and boundless joy, with moods so buoyant at times I feel like my heart might burst out of my ribcage. These days, just to stand in my shower and feel the warmth of the water is a reminder to stop thinking whatever I'm thinking and scoop up all the tendrils of my attention so they can't drift beyond the boundaries of my own skin. My life right now is a glittering buffet of ease and beauty. It might not - will likely not - always be that way, so I'm going to bask in its glow and devour every morsel of it while I'm able.
There have been strange and tragic turns of events in the lives of too many friends and loved ones. Head-on collisions, double funerals, parents holding their daughter's hand as her young life slips out of their grasp, a young woman who was thriving as an NYU film student one day and the next day unable to move or feel anything from the neck down. Have you ever heard of a spinal infarction? I hadn't either. Did you know there are companies out there that provide medical escort services for patients needing to be transported from a rehab center in Los Angeles to a different one in Paris, France?
And then there's that - Paris - where recent events have put the world on notice, made us hug our families that much closer. That there is a force operating in this world whose aim is nothing less than absolute darkness is nothing new, but there's something about these recent attacks that made all the hairs on the back of our collective neck stand up even straighter. The energies feel more threatening than ever.
Am I telling you these stories to make you feel guilty for all the blessings you have in your life? To remind you that, whatever your woes and worries, you need to "keep it all in perspective" and buck up? I am not saying that - not at all. I am acknowledging that life is hard, and we are all - all - one hair's width away from whatever we have falling apart. Which doesn't mean we should live in fear, but with conviction - with the knowledge that our presence plays a role in the fate of the world, that what we do matters. Whatever love and beauty and light we are able to create in the world, even if (we think) it won't expand beyond the walls of our own homes, it matters.
I finished my book. After years of talking about it and then about a year and a half of working on it in earnest, I'm sitting here with a 196-page book with 19 chapters and about 80,000 words. There are still a few copyediting issues to work out, but there will be no more re-writes, no more major revisions. The changes from the previous version to this one were by far the most significant. It is as if the book that wanted to be written waited until the last minute to reveal itself. Once I saw its shadow hovering around the corner of my awareness, I became obsessed with following it and doing its bidding. In between this, that and all the other of life's current distractions and obligations, I snatched up every available sliver of time to work on the book in order to meet a self-imposed deadline I set many weeks before so many lives around me took strange and unsettling turns.
In the midst of all this, a funny thing happened - as the book came to life in a way I hadn't expected, I started to care less and less about where the book might go publishing-wise. A friend observed that when I was still working on the first draft, I talked a lot about wanting to "help people" and tell my story to "encourage others." Those are nice thoughts, but now that I'm here, I understand I needed to write the book because it was begging to be written. I couldn't not write it. Where it will go from here is anyone's guess, and that's not for me to decide.
While writing the book, especially during this last phase, I started to experience a strange sense of anxiety - What if something happens to me before I finish the book? Hence my obsession. It became that much more imperative to give it everything I could, knowing it isn't possible to see what's coming around the corner. I worked not from fear, but determination.
For now, while I'm able, I'm going to keep creating, feeling, living, crying, laughing, breathing deep breaths and being of service in whatever way I can. I will continue opening up my home to those I love. I will keep on trying to create the best I can create, whatever that means.
Today, I am turning 48 years old. Today, I am in awe of everything my first 47 years have given me. Today, I'm here to do one thing: LIVE.
"Your grief lasted so long...
healing is here.
Your door was locked.
Look, here is the key."
I am estranged from my father. My approach is to be matter-of-fact about it if I’m ever asked a direct question about the state of our relationship, but most of the time I’m able to sidestep the issue entirely without much trouble. This is especially true in situations that require some level of small talk - a baby shower, a Christmas party. After “Where are you from?”, the person I’ve just met might ask “Where do your parents live?” My automatic response is, “My mom is in Alexandria,” and hardly anyone expresses further interest in the geographic whereabouts of other family members. The nice thing about my mom’s Alexandria zip code is that it provides an easy segway into a conversation about Old Town and the DC area. “Having access to so many museums is great,” I’ll say, “And I love visiting in the fall when the leaves are changing color.” Just like that, the discussion is steered away from anything having to do with my father, and I’m off the hook.
On the rare occasion I decide to be transparent about it - in a more intimate conversation, of the telling-your-whole-life-story variety - the immediate reaction is always the same, where the words come out easily enough but then hang between us like a soggy towel with all the messy backstories threatening to drip uncontrollably and make a mess of the entire conversation. Reactions tend to fall in the same general category - an understanding look of mild sympathy or a neutral, “That’s too bad.” Only once did anyone respond with actual horror - an incredulous “Oh that’s awful” - and I felt unexpectedly relieved that someone was finally willing to look beyond my terse explanation of things and see that, deep down, I found the entire situation heartbreaking.
Why we became estranged is, of course, a long story. It isn’t terribly unusual and it isn’t exceptionally horrific. More than anything it is just, well, sad. It is a circumstance I came to terms with long ago, but the emotional fallout of our break is never far from my awareness. Reminders of our disconnect float around our household like dust bunnies. I can try sweeping as many of them as possible under a rug, but as soon as I turn around there’s another one tucked behind a chair. You see, I am married to a man who is wholly, wildly, unequivocally devoted to his kids, so I have no hope of trying to hide from the truth of my relationship with my father. And what is that truth, exactly? The antithesis of what I see in my husband. The undeniable, plain-as-day polar opposite.
Father’s Day, therefore, is always an especially delicate day. I have to be cognizant of the emotions it stirs up - not only to take care of myself, but to steer clear of projecting those feelings onto anyone in my family and pulling them down into my own emotional sinkhole. Some years I’m able to pull it off pretty gracefully, other years I’ve fallen on my face. When my stepdaughter cancelled plans with her dad on Father’s Day a number of years ago because she got into a fight with her boyfriend, I took my disbelief and hauled it into our bathroom, where my husband found me sitting on the floor sobbing uncontrollably. I was devastated not merely because the estrangement was still a reality I was getting used to, but because I knew the circumstances of that day wouldn’t make a lick of difference as far as the way my husband loved his daughter. He would keep loving her, supporting her, forgiving her and adoring her. No matter what.
It is, in fact, that particular facet of my life with this family that I’ve had to work the hardest to come to terms with - even harder than finding my way to a peaceful acceptance of the estrangement with my father. Bearing witness to the way my husband loves and takes care of his son and daughter - who are both grown and married - has been the single most transformative, upsetting, disconcerting and redemptive experience I have been given. Learning how to not take things personally - their deep-rooted dynamics with each other don’t actually have much to do with me, and it isn’t as if they are trying to shove anything in my face - is a quest that will never be fully realized. I will always be on this path; I will forever be called to take the fraying threads of my sadness and transform them into glittering threads of light that keep me connected to the people I love most in the world - my family. Of all the work I have done in this world - as an artist, writer, teacher and mentor - it is the efforts I’ve made within the walls of my own home that I consider to be the most important work of my life.
On this Father’s Day, I am grateful for the peaceful, joyful moments I did manage to share with my father before things fell apart. We had them, and I cherish them. And I am letting loose a thousand butterflies to anyone out there who might need a little extra kindness for whatever reason on this day. These holidays - Mother’s Day, Father’s Day - have wonderful intentions behind them, and they can also feel like a minefield. To those of you who feel like you’re in the trenches, step carefully, hold your heart close, and know that no matter what your story - with your father or otherwise - you are good and brave and extraordinary. You are exactly where you belong.
Happy Father’s Day.
I recently finished This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. She has written many books, but this was the first I've read, and I picked it up because: A) The title caught my eye, and B) I decided reading a book of essays - particularly one that included a story about a marriage - was good homework for me. When it comes to writing, I consider myself an essayist above all else, and the book I am working on about my family will most certainly involve stories about my marriage. It is my marriage, after all, that sits at the center of everything - it is the source, cause and inspiration of all the stories I want to share. So I picked up the book and brought it home, and after finishing the second of 22 chapters, I had to set it aside for a while. The second chapter was called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, and it was one of those experiences of reading that had me nodding, gasping, laughing and crying. She wrote about details of her life as a writer that I understood, had only dreamed of and couldn't imagine. She reinforced my love of and passion for writing and also made me feel like a total poser. I had to put the book aside after reading that second chapter because I was, quite frankly, terrified. I was afraid that if I kept reading I would only get discouraged - intimidated by her talent and experience as a writer and envious of her beautiful hardcover book of essays. It wasn't long before I looked in the mirror and said, "Buck up and read the book!" and once I dove back in I was hooked.
A few weeks later, I found out she was speaking in Santa Barbara, and immediately bought tickets. The night of her event arrived, and I marched into the auditorium with my copy of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage in tow, feeling unexpectedly overwhelmed. You see, I learned a lot about Ann Patchett in that book of insanely well-written essays, and the more I learned, the less justified I felt calling myself a writer. I've never written for Vogue, won the PEN/Faulkner Award or attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop (or any workshop.) I've never written a novel, had my name in the New York Times or been a guest on The Colbert Report. Her entire life has been devoted to writing, and I didn't get going until I was almost 40 years old. By the time she walked out on stage, where she gave a talk worthy of TED that was both entertaining and poignant, I was literally almost in tears. And when I walked up to her table to have my book signed, I could not have been any less interesting or bland. I think I said "You are so funny…this book made me laugh out loud." Nice. Despite my utterly forgettable attempt at a compliment, she happily signed my book and admired my earrings, and I walked away feeling like a great big dork. And a loser. And an idiot.
During this time, I've also been reading Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller - another book that has me nodding and gasping and having to put the book down when I can't see the words because they are blurred by my tears. Karen Maezen Miller is a friend, and she also happens to be a Buddhist priest. She is not a friend I actually get to see very often, but is never far from my thoughts. I'd bet she actually has no idea how much she influences my day-to-day, how indelibly her presence in my life has made its mark - on me, my marriage, my family and my home. I guess I could call her my spiritual muse. She teaches and guides me just about everyday, just by her being. She is also an exquisite writer, and though her book is small, I have intentionally paced my reading of it in order to absorb each chapter as deeply as possible.
I attended one of Maezen's meditation workshops a few years ago, and she had us hold out our arms and wiggle our fingers. Doing this was supposed to give us a very literal answer to the question, "Where is my life?" The struggle so many of us have is that we believe we should be over there instead of right here - that our "real life" exists somewhere other than where we are, doing something other than what we're doing. Lifting our arms and wiggling our fingers showed us where to look to find our "real life" - right in front of us, in the here and now.
"Where is my life (as the writer I want to be)?"
"Right here. Right in front of you. Standing in front of Ann Patchett and feeling like a yoyo."
I'm not an award-winning writer (or a Buddhist priest), but I am, well, me. And while I sometimes give in to the monumentally unhelpful, unproductive game of comparing myself to others, I have, thankfully, learned how to pull myself out of it before all hell breaks lose. In Paradise in Plain Sight, Maezen says, "It is an awesome responsibility to inherit the ground where you stand." Ann Patchett has her unique place in the world, as does Maezen, my husband and my granddaughter. We all do, and it serves no one to look outside of ourselves and covet someone else's experiences. It is an awesome responsibility to inherit the ground where I stand - it demands my full attention and requires me to let go of irrational, ego-based longings ("If only I didn't have so much laundry I'd have won the PEN/Faulkner Award too!") Thank goodness the writers I admire stayed true to their own course. In doing so, they've shown me the way and inspired me to act - to write and share and give it a go. Even when I lose my way. Even when I forget where I am.
"To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness. It means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else's hourly failures to live up to divine standards. It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity. It means living so that 'I'm only human' does not become an excuse for anything. It means receiving the human condition as a blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive quality." -An Altar in the World
I have written much about the difficulties I have had throughout my trajectory as a blogger and member of this online creative community, most recently right here, where I outlined a few commitments I made to myself in order to steer clear of unnecessary drama. Through my continued informal inquiry into this topic, I have developed a deep appreciation for a much more fundamental truth about all of this, which is that this community is not any better or worse than any other community of individuals. We are human just like everyone else. And when humans come together - each of whom sees everyone else as characters in their own ongoing narrative - there are going to be tangles. There are going to be deep soulful connections, life-changing gatherings, and wildly inspiring collaborations as well as unprofessional interactions, cliquish-ness, and mistrust of another's actions and intentions. That statement is true of this community as well communities of yoga instructors, teachers, dog trainers, and real estate agents. My husband works in the investment industry, and he deals with some of the very same issues I deal with in my industry. The nature of the work everyone is doing doesn't matter; what is relevant is that we are all human beings, and sometimes forget we are dealing with other human beings, all of whom, for the most part, are doing the best they can and trying to find their way - just as I am, just as you are.
I do not say this to be discouraging about this community, but to (hopefully) encourage everyone to take a deep exhale, to recognize that we can let go of any expectations we might have that our particular coterie is better than others. Amazing connections and opportunities can be enjoyed as a result of this global online gathering, and it is also entirely possible we will run into people who will not believe the best in us, who - because of their own fears and sensitivities - might take something personally that has nothing to do with them. And because online interactions can be so immediate, very often words are sent across the ethers in a reactionary, rather than thoughtful, moment. I have been guilty of all of these things. Because I have an online presence, which I use mainly to promote and share my work, I took the time and effort to develop my own personal handbook of sorts for engaging with this community. After having experienced my own share of dramas as the result of flying by the seat of my pants, I have found that by setting clear boundaries I can avoid the kind of interactions that drain me, confound me, and make me want to move to Greenland.
A friend recently asked me what my "hidden agenda" is with the work that I do. I am going to give a different answer here than I gave her, one that is more specific to the topic of our community. My hidden agenda is to encourage all of us to take a deep breath - to try to take one step away from the idea that there is a finite amount of space for everyone's voices to be heard. To pick up the phone and have a conversation rather than send an email. To choose not to announce to the world or anyone else that an idea was stolen, and instead engage directly with the person in question. And in that engagement, bear in mind that it is unlikely that person pored over your work or website, intent on claiming your work as his or her own. On the other side of that coin, if you are looking for information and inspiration, and you find something that compels you into action, put your own thumbprint on whatever work you do. I know work is, literally and blatantly, stolen from time to time (it has happened to me on a number of occasions), but we can still choose to be professional.
My hidden agenda is to encourage all of us to own our actions, acknowledge when we've messed up, and apologize when it is appropriate. It is my hope we can all learn to see one another, and recognize that even if we don't feel a perfect connection with someone - or perhaps if the person we meet face to face doesn't live up to the person we created in our minds after reading their blogs or books - they are still a human being with his or her own fears, hopes, and dreams. My hidden agenda is to challenge all of us to not take things so personally. I've experienced or heard stories about blog entries, blog comments, art shows, retreats, collaborations, books, paintings, emails, and even Etsy store descriptions being taken personally. And when the worst possible assumptions are made about these endeavors and there isn't a timely, respectful conversation about them, friendships and alliances can be lost in one quick instant, each person walking away unsure of what, exactly, went wrong.
"Every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or make things worse." -An Altar in the World
There is a sentence in my forthcoming book that says the same thing, almost verbatim. I wrote that sentence many months ago, before I read these words by Barbara Brown Taylor this morning. When I read them, my very first thought was, "Great! Now someone, somewhere, is going to think I stole this sentence!" That is where my mind goes all too quickly these days - straight to the fear that something I do is going to offend someone, for some reason. That I have to now stop - before I do anything - and take stock of what everyone else is doing, and make sure my actions don't pierce the imaginary line we all have a tendency to draw around ourselves at times, fearful our voice won't be heard, our work won't be seen, our careers won't soar. I don't like living with that fear, and unfurling my "hidden agenda" is my way of trying to move beyond it. To, instead of griping about feeling that way, try to inspire everyone - especially myself - to treat one another with the same respect and kindness we want for ourselves, and not be so quick to rush to the worst judgment possible.
These tasks aren't easy. They take patience, mindfulness, intense awareness, and trust - in our colleagues and fellow community members as well as in our own work and unique voice. What kind of transformations would happen if we all gave this a go? Where can we be softer, kinder, and more focused on our own actions instead of the actions of others? This community is only going to expand, so we'd better figure these things out now. We are the teachers; we are in the throes of building and growing this world wide web of artistic and entrepreneurial souls. What kind of legacy do we want to leave for those not yet involved?