Empty Nest, Take 1

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I moved you into your dorm room yesterday. You are only 9, and it’s only for a week, your first sleep-away summer camp on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. I pinned smiling family pictures to the bulletin board above your desk area while you cavorted with your friend, tumbling over the bed I had just so carefully made, tucking in sheet corners snug and smooth so that they would hold you when I could not. So that when, if, there is a moment this week when everything gets complicated and messy and you don’t know how to sort your way through it on your own, at least your sheets, carefully smoothed by my love, will be in neat order.

You have been looking forward to this week for the last six months. We honestly weren’t sure, you and I, if this was a good idea. You are only 9, after all. The camp had to make a special exception for you since usually all incoming 5th graders are already 10.

“Momma,” you’d whisper as I tucked you into bed, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug, “what happens if I have a bad dream?”

“What happens if I need a snuggle to go to sleep?”

“What if I can’t do it?”

I smoothed your fears out one by one, reminding you of your own power, your own strength, reminding you that there are always other adults around who will care for you, reminding you that coming home was always an option, however last-ditch it may be.

We invited your closest friend to join you, and once she said yes, your fears were erased with the magic of friendship and companionship and daydreams of shared moments and laughter. From that moment on, you were dashing ahead in your mind to this week on the shores of the lake, this week of projects and creativity and skits and songs and independence and bedtime whispers after lights out.

As if in response to the fervor of your anticipation, the interim months sped by in a blur of spring sports and end of school and summer reading and summer travel and swim team and hiking and game nights and sleepovers and 150 bedtime tuck-ins, roughly speaking of course. One hundred and fifty moments of sitting together and listing out the things we are grateful for. One hundred and fifty songs. One hundred and fifty chances to smooth your blankets around you and make you feel warm and secure. Gone in the blink of an eye.

I moved you into your dorm room yesterday, and while I pinned pictures and smoothed sheets, you cavorted and we weren’t alone. There was no breath, no pause in the pace of this freight-train life, no loss of forward momentum. I needed this moment where I could whisper “pause” like a superpower and everyone and everything around us would freeze in place, leaving us to touch foreheads and look into each other’s eyes and talk about what you would do if you have a bad dream.

There were other parents in that tiny room, moving their girls in too, and I felt silly trying to take pictures, trying to catch moments, trying to pause time.

I should have known that our time to pause was long ago.

I should have known our time to touch foreheads and gaze into eyes and talk about love was those twelve weeks I stayed home from work with you, when I walked around our neighborhood pushing your stroller, making up songs to sing because I couldn’t stand the silence.

Our time was all those evenings when your tiny body fit into the curve of my lap, both of us snuggled into the giant purple chair, a stack of books on hand before we could dream about turning off the lamp.

Our time was in those minutes that seemed to stretch forever, you laying in bed with your mind and lips full of questions about life. You were only three when you asked me how I knew this wasn’t all some kind of dream we would wake up from one day. I tried to give the moment the credit it deserved, but I think back on all those nights my mind was only on the promise of the alluring quiet just beyond the reach of lights out.

I should have known. I should have begun our pause nine years ago. I should have breathed you in and told you everything would be amazing and you would be amazing back when I had the chance. I should have felt the ghosts of other parents moving other kids into your dorm room back when I held you, your age still counted in hours, while you slept. I should have taken our moment together then.

Of course I did. We touched foreheads and eye gazed and spoke of love at every age, at every season, at every time of day. But those moments were smug and naïve, entitled, the moments of a young mother who thinks she will always be able to pause and connect anytime she wants, a parent who doesn’t yet know that the world hurtles forward and moments of presence don’t always come.

When we left, you were standing at the door of your dorm building, just tall enough to see through the bottom edge of the glass. How can I leave you behind when you are still so small? Your eyes watched our every move, wide, hesitant, terrified. Maybe that’s what bravery looks like.

I wonder if my eyes looked the same to you, in that moment our gaze locked before we drove away.

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Swagger and Doubt: Why we need the waves of life to help us find our feet

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My daughter has always been pretty damn good at dealing with the trials and tribulations of life.

There’s a story, passed into family lore, about her at the age of two. Her younger brother, still a baby, crawling, infatuated with his newfound freedom of movement, was pitching an epic fit while I tried to wrestle him into his restrictive car seat straps.

“Why is Sammy crying? Is he okay?” my daughter, buckled in and waiting, asked worriedly.

“Oh, baby, he’s just upset that he has to wear his seat belt,” I told her, wrestling with the writhing banshee in front of me.

My son’s wails filled the car, and my daughter, hands thrown protectively over her own ears, yelled, “Well, I have to wear a seat belt, too, Sammy, and I’m dealing with it! Do you hear me, Sammy?! I’M DEALING WITH IT!”

She walked through her early childhood years with a confidence and maturity that was unusual for a child so young. Knowing this self-assurance would serve her well in life, we made a concerted effort throughout her childhood to celebrate her swagger, maximize her moxie, and honor her chutzpah.

Thinking we could cement her self-confidence in an unshakable self-love, we did everything we could to teach her to honor and take pride in herself. We celebrated her creativity and her leadership skills, her work ethic and her problem solving, her beauty and her strength. We taught her to value differences in others, hoping that empathy would become an all-encompassing embrace that would include her own unique self.

There’s a bedtime song we sing to our kids that my husband made up, called the “I love you” song. We sing and use sign language to spell out “I love you” and our kids’ names over and over, and then we end with “And I hope you love you, too!” at which point they cheerfully chirp, “Yes, I do!”

Years we have sung our love to them. Years they have smiled and gazed at us while happily avowing that they, too, love themselves. Surely we were teaching them a self-love so deep, no tectonic shift could touch it.

As the years passed, though, my daughter’s innate moxie was chipped away, bit by bit. She qualified for two of the gifted programs at school, but not all three. Chip. She is in six different activities at any given time but doesn’t do music lessons like her friends. Chip. She isn’t as fast as her brother—chip—she isn’t a child Broadway star—chip—she isn’t as tall as the rest of her class—chip.

Comparison—that infamous thief of joy—is also the tiny, daily pin pricks to the balloon of self-confidence. Her swagger got smaller and smaller, sputtering, like an engine on fumes.

Last fall, my daughter, now nine, had a bumpy day at school. Learning to navigate the rise and fall of friendships is a tough skill at any age. We’d talked it through, her asking all the hard questions, me struggling to make hard answers seem easy. She was snuggled into bed, tucked in with her loveys and her books, and I picked the “I love you” song as one last reminder that no matter how hard the day has been, she is always, always loved.

We reached the end, where I sing “and I hope you love you, too,” and she was quiet a beat too long before habit forced words from her lips, words that I was hearing for the first time. “I don’t know. I guess I do. Sometimes.”

I felt my own feet rising, rising, rising, losing touch with the ground as a wave of a new kind of parenting grief lifted me away from the confident connection I had felt for so long.

My girl—my brilliant, beautiful, kind, sparkling, gifted, one-of-a-kind girl—was falling out of love with herself, right then, in that day, in that moment, in front of my eyes.

Self-doubt became her frequent companion, the daemon that sat on her shoulder and whispered in her ear. She came to hate things that caught her off guard, things that she wasn’t prepared for, things that would challenge her sense of competence and remind her that she wasn’t in control. (You know. Things like life.)

And I foundered alongside her. All my efforts to give her enough self-love and confidence that she could avoid doubt and fear seemed so laughable. So weak.

We spent winter break this year in Florida, tagging along on my husband’s work trip. We spent our last evening in Palm Beach, reveling in the sunshine and warm ocean water we won’t see for months yet in snowy New Hampshire. My daughter is a competent swimmer, years spent in lakes and pools and on swim team. But every time a wave would come, she would panic, clinging to my arm, begging for help.

The waves would lift her feet from the ground, taking away her solidity, her assurance, and she would lose herself in that loss of control.

I felt desperate in that moment, in that ocean, desperate for her to find that swagger, that moxie, that she’d worn like a skin for so many years.

“You can SWIM, Ali!” I hollered at her. She kicked her feet frantically, holding onto my hand, eyes staring at mine, mind whirring. “Yes, waves come. They pick you up and lift you off the bottom and you can’t see over them. You don’t know what’s on the other side. So you know what you do?”

Eyes staring, ears straining, mind whirring.

“You DEAL WITH IT. Maybe there is another wave just over this one that won’t give you enough time to touch the ground and jump again. Maybe there’s not. Maybe you’ll get salt water in your eyes and mouth. Maybe you’ll go underwater when you aren’t ready. But whatever happens, you can DEAL WITH IT. You spit out the water, you take a breath, the stinging doesn’t last forever. You swim when you have to. You rest when you can. You can handle whatever you need to handle.”

She let go of my hand just enough to swim alongside me.

A wave appeared. “Mom!” she yelled, and I could feel it, I could feel her struggle between moxie and fear, between confidence and doubt.

“I’m right next to you,” I told her. “But you can deal with this.”

She jumped up and over the wave, and just on the backside, hidden behind the first, was another wave, a bigger wave, immediately, because of course nothing is easy when you’re trying to teach your kid a lesson.

“You’ve got this,” I yelled at her. “You can deal with it!”

She kicked furiously over the second wave, screaming into the sunset, “I’m dealing with it! I’m dealing with it!” The look of determination and pride on her face was a time machine for me, taking me back to the little girl who knew she could conquer the world.

She spent the rest of the evening standing up to the ocean, seeing a wave coming and yelling “Oh, I see you wave! You think you’re big? I’m going to deal with you! I’m dealing with you! Ha ha ha, I dealt with you like a boss!” and jumping and splashing and swimming and dancing with the salt air and the orange light and the rise and fall of life.

And in those swells, those hollers, that water, that night, I felt my own feet finally return to earth.

I realized that I had tried to give my daughter a way to bypass my own struggles, as every parent does, without realizing that doubt and fear are just as integral a part of the human experience as confidence and love.

Life isn’t about being so completely confident that you sidestep doubt. We can’t avoid the waves of life, the scary, can’t-see-past-them moments that pick us up and take away our solid ground.

In fact, we need those waves, those inevitable moments of challenge and loss of control, to teach us that no matter what comes, we can deal with it. Those moments are when we realize the power of our own legs to kick through, the ability of our own spirit to respond to whatever happens and to eventually, always, take that next pure breath on the other side.

Those moments when we seem most unsure are, paradoxically, the moments that finally instill in us a sense of competence and confidence. Swagger, it turns out, is earned not learned.

That night, watching my daughter discover her own strength and ability to deal with what comes, I realized I was watching her discover her own self-love, greater than anything I could ever have given her myself.

 

Photo credit: Mohamed Nohassi; Unsplash

The Heartbreaking Day My Daughter Didn’t Need Me

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I’ve never been more stressed than I was watching my daughter’s 4th grade spelling bee.

It seems like a strange thing to be stressed about, admittedly, but with my daughter it’s never “just” a test, or “just” a speech, or “just” a spelling bee. As a gifted child for whom nearly everything in life has come easily, her bar for success is high, with her self-assessment typically being not “what did I accomplish” but “what did I fall short on?”

If there’s a chance to advance in a competition, she does not imagine any outcome that does not include her doing so. Hers is a life lived in the constant tension between soaring self-confidence and a devastating fear of failure.

My daughter was an early and avid reader, and as a child who lives cloaked in endless words, she is a naturally excellent speller. She can spell any word I give her, knowing as she writes it down if it looks correct or not, knowing intuitively how to fix it if it doesn’t. But spelling bees don’t afford the benefit of writing words down to see. You have to be able to spell the words aloud. No revisions allowed.

No mistakes forgiven.

I sat perched on the small, blue plastic chairs in her elementary school library, surrounded by bright primary colors and hand-cut paper snowflakes hanging from the windows. The contestants filed in, and my daughter ran to me immediately, wrapping her arms around my shoulders and touching her forehead lightly to mine. What a gift, these years when they’re still young enough to love their parents wholly and unabashedly in front of their peers.

She pulled back to look at me, her hazel eyes belying her nerves, and she waited. Waited for me to say the right thing, to be the voice of courage in her head, the show her the way forward, to lead her through this moment.

“Hey,” I told her with a twinkle in my eye that completely masked my own churning nerves. “Just spell one word right. Just one! Anything after that is bonus.”

She smiled back, relieved. I had given her the plan, showed her the steps to success, calmed her nerves, and boosted her courage. I had fulfilled my parental job.

The contestants filled their seats, some prim and still, some slouched and picking at their jeans, some nervously looking around, some relaxed and grinning.

I leaned over to my friend who was sitting next to me, who also had a daughter competing. “I just hope that they all go out on a really hard word that they legitimately misspell,” I whispered.

And then the bee began.

The first few rounds were easy to build the contestants’ confidence. Some kids spouted their words off quickly, skipping through the letters with breezy confidence. My daughter took her time, each time asking for the word to be used in a sentence like we’d practiced.

In the third round, the first child misspelled a word, and the rest of the group stilled, looking nervously and furtively around. The contestant who had missed his word left the group and seemed confused about where to go. His father called him over, and the boy went and sat at his dad’s feet, quiet and a little dazed. His dad patted his shoulder and told him he’d done a good job.

The contestants’ smiles faded a few shades and they began to spell the words more slowly. The words got harder.

despair

Borneo

garbanzo

Xanadu

couriers

swiveled

solely

One by one, contestants missed a letter, swapped the vowel order, mixed up sounds. One by one, they were eliminated and asked to sit down. One by one, my daughter took her words, and slowly, painstakingly spelled them aloud, finger writing them into her palm as she went.

With each “that is correct” at the end of her turn, she would break into a relieved sigh and smile and sit back down into her chair, looking at me and mirroring my “good job, kiddo!” wink. I smiled for her so big and hard my cheeks cramped, as if I could will my confidence, my support, my love into her from afar like wrapping her in a big blanket of security.

We began round ten and her word was “pad Thai.” She laughed. She loves to eat pad Thai. This one would be easy. She asked if she had to specify that it was two words when she spelled it, and if she had to say which letter is a capital. She didn’t have to do either. She just had to spell it.

“P-A-D” she began, finger writing the words on the table in front of her, confident, sure, comfortable. “T-H-ah—–A-I.”

The “ah” was whatever sound the first quarter of the letter “i” sounds like. She didn’t say the entire letter “i,” but she had started to, stopped herself, and corrected.

I didn’t even have time to catch my breath.

“I’m sorry, that is incorrect,” the judge responded.

My daughter stood there, thunderstruck. My heart began falling, falling, falling.

“It’s T-H-A-I,” the judge explained.

“That’s what I said,” my daughter shot back.

“You said the ‘I’ first,” said the judge, and at that point I stopped listening. I was watching my daughter closely, willing her to feel me, to feel my arms and my love and my comfort.

She sat down and glowered. Her face turned bright red and she brought her fists up around her ears as the last contestant spelled his word correctly and the round ended and she was asked to rejoin the audience.

She raced furiously through the room, skipping over kids who were sitting on the floor, and launched herself into my arms.

“They’re wrong they’re wrong they’re wrong they’re wrong” she whispered into my chest, curled up on my lap like she’d done so many hundreds of times throughout her childhood when she was hurting or lost or falling, curled into me as far as she could to hide from the hurt. “Tell them they’re wrong,” she begged.

I whispered “Shhhhhhh, shhhhhhhh” while I stroked her hair and tried to get my heart to push out of my chest and into hers, so that she would be saved from this moment, from this hurt. “I can’t,” I whispered.

I can’t. A statement of what was possible (nothing) and a description of my own parental impotence. This moment, this pain, this hurt, I could do nothing about.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair” she chanted to herself as her small body shook with fury and tears.

“Shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhh,” I whispered into her hair, her ear, her heart.

“They’re wrong, I didn’t say ‘i,’ I said ‘a-i,’ they’re wrong, it isn’t fair, they’re wrong,” over and over and over and over.

I murmured into her ear what I could as the spelling bee continued on in front of us, my lips pressed tightly against her ear so that she could hear that I was so sorry, that I loved her so much, that there was nothing we could do, nothing we could do, nothing we could do.

She had friends who had come to watch her compete who came by to check on her between rounds as the spelling bee went on, and she hid her face from them, trying to crawl back into my body, and if I could have cracked my rib cage open to give her a place to hide, I would have.

She wept and raged as silently as she could while I whispered into her ear about small sounds that can sound like letters, about mistakes that are made, that I knew, I knew she knows how to spell “pad Thai,” but that she had just let that one sound slip out, that quarter of an “i,” and of course had corrected it immediately, but that one little sound was what the judges heard first, and that was it.

I held her tiny body as she learned the painful lesson that sometimes one tiny mistake is all it takes, that sometimes you don’t get a chance to fix things, that sometimes mistakes mean the end. I held her and I took on her pain and I told her “I know, I know, I know,” because I didn’t know what else to say.

There was nothing else to say.

I couldn’t do or say anything to fix it, so I held her and we fell down, down, down together. We sat and we curled into each other and we felt all the pain of that moment.

I don’t know how much time passed. None at all and forever. The spelling bee ended, and we applauded the winner. Somehow she found the strength to get up and smile for a group picture, the boy to her right sporting a shining gold medal around his neck.

She asked if I would come into the girls’ bathroom with her so that she could cry in private, and I told her I could do even better.

We walked straight out the front of the school together, and I took her to lunch.

We were quiet as we drove. There was nothing I could think of to say that would make this better for her, that would take away the pain of this moment. No reassurances, no life lessons, no positive spin or silver lining. False platitudes would do nothing. We drove in silence for a minute or two, the time punctuated only by small gulping breaths and sniffles from the back seat.

And then, “What am I going to do when Daddy asks how it went?”

What I heard was so much bigger than that. “What do I do with this hurt, Momma? What do I do with this failure? How can I face this shame?”

I blinked my own tears back and had no easy words, no solution, no path forward for her. The only thing I could do was to take the shame of mistakes and failure away, to show her that sometimes we just sit there with our bruised and bleeding hearts and we show them to the world without sugar coating or silver linings or spin. That sometimes the world just fucking sucks.

“We tell him that you did great, and then you made a tiny misstep, a stumble, and that you were knocked out in the absolutely most brutal way possible. Because that’s the truth. This? This is brutal.”

“It is,” she agreed from behind me.

We drove on in silence for a few more minutes, and I relived the moment over and over, the stumble, the quarter of a letter that slipped out accidentally, the split second I wish I could have thrown my body over like it was a grenade, absorbing the impact, the sound, so that no one else would have heard it and my girl could have moved on in the bee, to be knocked out eventually, I’m sure, by something truly difficult, by a word that bested her rather than a moment that tripped her.

And as I drove through town, reliving that moment, feeling the hurt again and again and again, wondering how she could possibly survive this experience unscathed, I heard “I can’t believe I have to wait a whole year before I get a shot at redemption.”

A shot at . . . redemption?

Imagine you are a parent, and that you’ve fallen down a deep, dark pit with your child, and that you are both broken at the bottom and unable to stand. You have no fix. You have no solution. So you curl yourself around them and succumb to the darkness of the rocky floor. And then you hear something, and you look down and you realize you aren’t curled around your child anymore. Your child has somehow extricated themselves, has somehow stood up on their own.

Your child, who has always needed you to help them stand when they’re broken, stood up on their own.

That look that would be on your face, as you gazed not down but up at your child, who helped themselves up, from broken to standing, without you, that was the look on my face as I looked at my daughter in the rear view mirror that day.

She was gazing out the window, eyes calm, mind fixed on some future point when she’d throw herself into that dreadful, anxious fray again, determined to achieve a different outcome.

What I realized in that moment is that there will come a time in your child’s life when you can’t pick them up. You can’t fix a hurt, you can’t find a solution, you can’t save them. And maybe, just maybe, it’s when you can’t pick them up that they learn how to pick themselves up.

Maybe it wasn’t a failure on my part that I couldn’t take away her pain that day. Maybe all I had to do was curl up with her in her pain and sit in it with her, without prodding or pulling or cajoling her to leave it behind.

Maybe what she needed was a companion for her injured heart and the space and time to pick herself up and dust herself off when she was ready.

Maybe my job as a parent isn’t to protect my children from pain and failure, but to walk beside them as they learn that hurt is inevitable and justified, and that they have the strength within themselves to stand up when they’re ready and move on.

Maybe that heartbreaking day turned out to be pretty damn incredible. How can anyone learn strength without getting knocked down first? How can anyone discover their own fortitude without being left to stand alone?

My daughter and I had a quiet, happy lunch together that day. I noticed the next day that her spelling bee study list had been moved from the counter to her desk shelf rather than the trash can. Maybe next year she will have forgotten the spelling bee and we won’t walk into this particular arena again. I think it’s more likely that she will remember, and she will suit up and try again. Because this girl of mine has a warrior’s heart.

And my role as her mom is to feed her fire, and hold her when it hurts, and give her space as she learns to get back up on her own and try again.

Hate and Uncle Joe

(My daughter is my favorite author. She is nine years old and has more talent in her tiny little fingers that fly over the keyboard, trying to keep up with the voice in her head, than I do in all my writerly brain and years of experience. She wrote this realistic fiction short story for a school project. The assignment was to write an essay, poem, or short story about “Which has a greater impact on society: Love or Hate?” While most of her classmates wrote essays, she came up with this. This is untouched by me–not the words, not the grammar, not the punctuation or pacing or content. She. is. nine. If you are touched by her words, she’d be absolutely thrilled to read a comment from you. Enjoy.)

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Momma says love has a bigger impact on society, and nobody cares about hate so it might as well have a nonexistent impact, but I don’t know about that. Because if love had a bigger impact, maybe my great-uncle Joe would be here today.

I’m just a kid, so I can’t pretend to be some big expert on worldwide societal change and impact. But I do know that Uncle Joe only stayed a soldier way past retirement age because he was afraid people might hate him if he quit, and the president hated the leader of France, which caused a war. And Uncle Joe died in the war.

I don’t want to cry. Uncle Joe was my friend, and so when I grow up, I’m going to be in the army too. To honor him. And brave, strong soldiers like Uncle Joe–like me–don’t cry.

Well, that’s what I tell myself. But it doesn’t stop me from blinking hard, fast, trying to keep back the tears. And then they’re really falling, if silently, and my chest is shaking, and I’m full of pain. I don’t want to be crying, I don’t want to be feeling this pain, but I can’t help it. Strong soldiers don’t cry, at least I think they don’t–I never ever saw Uncle Joe cry–but here I am, crying and crying and crying like the world is burning down around me. If I could decide, and believe me, I wish I could, I would be standing here, stoic and strong. Comforting those around me and mourning in peace. But I’m not. I’m standing here and I’m crying. It’s a little embarrassing.

Momma notices. She leans over and whispers, “Let it out, Ellie, you’ll feel so much better once you get it out of your system.”

So I do. Even though I’m not proud of it, I stop trying to hold back the rushing tears. I just cry.

And, when I’m done having my good long cry, I think a little bit about what I was thinking earlier, back when I was bitter and stoic and not-crying (Momma was right, now that I have it out of my system I’m feeling much better.)

Hate has other impacts, too. Kind actions, sure, people are happy about and they say it “makes their day,” but I know that I–and Momma, and Daddy, and my brothers Will and Mason–we all grab a mean word, a particularly nasty one–a hateful word–in our web of memories and hardly ever let it go. We carry hateful words with us for the rest of our lives, until we’re too old and frail to remember much of anything. And, if someone does something rude or mean, the person begins building a wall of hatred. And then, the second person does something mean to them. And the wall of hatred just keeps growing–complete with the stabilizer of hurt feelings and the mold of grudges–until it’s too high for either person to jump or even climb over. And then these two people who could’ve been good friends each think the other has to apologize to them. And then this potential friendship is ruined, and even though the wall of hatred may crumble a little here, break down a bit there, essentially erode a little over time, it will never be low enough for the people to get over it. And they hate each other for the rest of their lives, until, like I said, they’re too old and frail to remember anything, and maybe they’ll even hate each other then, without really even knowing why.

And now, hatred has ended my Uncle Joe’s life. No, it’s not just Uncle Joe–many, many soldiers lost their lives in that war. Today, many families around the country–and all the way in France, because soldiers died on the other side, too–grieve and mourn and celebrate for their family members. I remind myself that I’m very lucky. My dad and older cousin Howard both went to fight in that war with Uncle Joe, and they made it back to me and Momma and Will and Mason and Aunt Kari and Uncle Noah. And for one tiny moment, I’m just purely happy that Daddy and Howard made it back to us, even though Uncle Joe didn’t. But then I come crashing back down to earth, to the sad reality. Uncle Joe is gone. For the first time, that truly sinks in. He’s gone. I’ll never see him again.

My twelfth birthday is in a month, and he’ll never get to meet twelve-year-old me. He joked that as soon as I get my driver’s license, I’ll take him on rides, but I’ll never get to do that. He used to boast that when I’m all grown up–Major Ellie Hernandez-Thompson, a famous commander who led the U.S. Army to victory many times–he’ll be able to tell people that he remembers when I was smaller than the tubs of ice cream we share on Sundays, not caring if we stain our best church clothes, but he’ll never be able to do that, and we’ll never eat ice cream like that together again, either. I promised him he could be a senior groomsman in my wedding, when I’m in my twenties, freshly out of university college, but he won’t even be able to watch me fall in love, let alone be in my wedding. He’ll never sit at the table again, his face buried in the newspaper, shaking his head and saying some not-so-nice things about Trump. He will only ever meet eleven-year-old me. I’m eleven years old, and that’s all Uncle Joe ever got to see of me. He didn’t get to see Major Ellie Hernandez-Thompson, he didn’t get to meet Ellie the married woman, and he’ll never talk to Ellie the mom. He won’t even meet Ellie the teenager. He’ll only know Ellie the eleven-year-old. And I hate that.

And suddenly I’m filled with hate. I hate that he’ll never be able to meet any version of me older than eleven. I hate the man that shot him. I hate whoever’s that man’s boss even more. I hate that he insisted on going to war even though he’s well past retirement age. I hate that everyone’s just standing here instead of throwing the memorial party a man like him and a life like his deserves. I hate that Dad and my cousin Howard made it back and Uncle Joe didn’t. But then all the hate drains out of me, and I fall to the ground with an empty thump. I still resent the fact that Uncle Joe didn’t make it home. But mostly I’m thinking that Uncle Joe–and hundreds of others–lost their lives because of hate. And hate is a stupid thing to die because of. Sickness and old age and car crashes and stuff like that–those are all appropriate things to die of. But Uncle Joe and tons of others didn’t die the normal way, the way they should’ve–they died in a war. Because of hate. And that’s not only a stupid way to die, it’s unfair. And I know life isn’t fair, but this is unfair to the point that it’s wrong.

Today, as we mourn Uncle Joe and all the others that lost their lives in the French-American War, my bouncy, resilient red hair is a little duller, maybe copper, my bright blue-green eyes dimmed to a shade that’s maybe even just hazel. The greens on my army jacket–the one Uncle Joe gave me for my ninth birthday–are a little murkier, maybe more the color of pond scum or pea broth than appropriate camouflage. The colors of my world are dimmer, honoring the soldiers that lost their lives to hate.

Momma says love has a bigger impact on the world, but I think she’s just saying that because love and kindness are good. Because it doesn’t matter what kind of impact–good or bad. Love has a good impact on society, and hate has a bad impact. But, good or bad, hate has a bigger impact. Because, if not for hate, Uncle Joe would still be here today.

That last thought still lingering in my mind, I curl up into a little ball and have myself another good cry.

A Southern Woman’s Apology

southern woman fence boots apology bless your heart

I was born and raised on the gospel of
bluebonnets and pickups and Friday night lights,
grits and guns floating through my veins
like summer tubes on the Frio,
my tongue attuned to brisket,
my eyes to symphonic sunsets,
my ears to long vowels that languidly stretch in the afternoon heat
and my heart to pride in stories of days and feats gone by.

The endless laces of the corset
tightening, ever tightening, trying to tame me into the
just-so shape of southern grace,
and yet in the end

I never did quite fit.

Apostate, I broke away,
leaving my training in shreds on the porch,
offering a sorry over my shoulder as I went.

I’m sorry I didn’t accept fading into the corner,
cookie tray in hand,
“Would you like a refill of that sweet tea?”

Impossible to be seen behind the veneer of a polite smile,
I hollered instead, laughing wildly, middle finger flashing,
not listening to your stunned silence and stares
loud as Judgment Day as I waltzed away.

I’m sorry my purple-streaked blonde hair is so messy so often,
thrown up on my head, out of my way,
treated as an afterthought instead of
an asset, a billboard, a piece of marketing,
time saved from perfecting roots and curls going instead to the business of living,
makeup saved for special occasions
more rare and less meaningful than the beauty of everyday life.

I’m sorry my body isn’t firm and tight,
my sides bulging past the paper cut-out boundaries of the
debutante doll kit you have passed down
like religion, like tradition, like heritage,
my thighs touching and my butt too powerful to fit into those size six jeans.

I’m sorry I strut my naked toenails around in skimpy flip flops,
that I dare to suggest that my natural
is as worthy and beautiful
as your perfectly manicured.

I’m sorry I don’t care if my hunger for analysis
and knowledge
and debate
and digging into causes and cures
gets in the way of your beer-swinging good time,
for the disquiet that is born from a woman who challenges you,
a woman who refuses to pretend the pedestal belongs to men,
whose mind is as good as your mind and
whose questions are as valuable as your questions and
whose time is as precious as your time.

I’m sorry that you were expecting demure and you got an edge as sharp as my tongue.

I’m sorry the boys I was expected to pick faded into the background,
my eye caught by someone smaller and darker and sharper and vastly more expansive.

I’m sorry I aspired to live a life bigger than my kitchen,
that I sometimes answer the question “What’s for dinner” with
“I don’t know, what IS for dinner?”
and that I have stopped even trying to be
every version
of every woman
from the last three generations combined,
that I looked at the game of doing everything they used to do
along with everything I’ve been told I should do
along with everything I actually want to do
and saw that the rules were rigged from the get-go,
that I would fail no matter which path I took,
and so I just said “no.”

I’m sorry that I left you to sputter and choke on your sweet tea,
that I didn’t rush in to alleviate your discomfort by making it my own,
that my “no” was left to float between us
without apology
or regret.

I’m sorry a juicy, grinning Buddha graces my shelves
instead of a crucified Christ.
I’m sorry I dare to smile in the face of nothingness,
in the midst of a life with an end date,
that I’m raising two kids to know that there is no such thing
as one truth
but rather there is belief
and there is faith
and there is science
and there is space for us all to hold our own conclusions.

I’m sorry I dared to sneak north of the Mason-Dixon
and then dared to call it freedom.

I’m sorry that my treason
left you angry and defensive and confused and discomfited.

All I can say
as you sit there with the storm rising in your breast and
thunder rolling in your throat and
lightning sparking from your eyes is

Bless
your
heart.

Matriarch

Munna

Last month, our family lost its matriarch. Munna wasn’t just the head of our family, the last-standing of her generation of siblings and spouses. She was our light and our spirit; she truly united us in love and laughter. She cracked jokes and drank screwdrivers and loved me and my family so very much.

What is it that makes some grandparents scary to kids, a relationship bound in familial love but with so little true emotional closeness? Whatever it is she found a way around it. Or maybe she was hyper aware of that awkward, forced dynamic and was determined to avoid it. I remember as a kid, our conversations on the phone—a few simple questions and then an “I love you” and a goodbye. I always hung up the phone feeling relieved I hadn’t had to grit my way through a longer conversation the way I had to with others, and I loved her for that. Maybe that was her game all along: always leave them wanting more.

When I was a child, visiting her in Puerto Rico, we were walking home from the Big Orange juice stand one day and happened upon some discarded tile from a condo renovation happening nearby. Rather than walking by the small, half-inch ceramic squares, she gasped, eyes twinkling, and she scooped them up. We spent the afternoon on her patio, overlooking the ocean, painting Christmas trees and wreaths on the tiny squares and gluing earing poles to the backs, transforming waste into jewelry, turning the ordinary into magic. This was her superpower.

She took me whitewater rafting when she was 74. She gamely paddled along when she could, smiling and laughing, but mostly she was just along for the ride. The guides made her get out and walk on the shore past the worst of the rapids, and she just smiled and laughed and said “sure.” It was all fine. She had no agenda, no measuring stick against which she was going to judge the experience or her performance in it. She just showed up, grandkids in tow, ready to experience something new. The experience itself was the whole. There’s no point in measuring something whole. A measurement is only made by discovering what is lacking, what is missing. Eight inches has meaning because we compare it to something longer or shorter, something that it’s not. A review of something is an assessment, a “this was good, but this wasn’t,” but even “good” doesn’t exist in a vacuum, even “good” can only be defined because we know what isn’t. For Munna, it didn’t seem to be about this. There was no good or bad, no “I was successful at this but not at this.” There was “I did this.” And that was enough.

My Munna didn’t spend much time alone. She was married to her first husband, G-Daddy, from college until his death, and a mere handful of months later she had eloped with another widower, a man who took her dancing and traveling and on long drives through the mountains of Northern Georgia. My mom and her siblings seemed to balk at this marriage, at its suddenness and its intensity, but even as a child I could see Munna’s stamp all over it. It was again, always, a simple, immeasurable whole. “I want love and companionship. I have it. I will smile and laugh through it.”

20 years later, Poppy, as he came to be known, also passed, leaving Munna once again on her own. She waited, not too patiently, and eventually an eligible bachelor showed up at the nursing home, and Munna quickly claimed him for herself. She ate with him and sat with him. She cracked inappropriate jokes about the crumbs that fell in his lap being her snack for later. She’d wear a ring and tell him, much to his daily, recurrent surprise, that he had proposed to her. When he fell ill, she went to visit him, and when she began to break down, he would totter down the hall to her bedside and lean down into her reaching arms to plant a kiss on her waiting lips.

My Munna lived beyond the lands of judgments and expectations and “shoulds.” She said “sure” to the thousands of adventures that lead us through life: the long drives across the country, four small kids in tow, the backyard picnics and parties, the trips, the retirement to tropical islands, the jumping into love without fear or second guessing, the whitewater rafting, the midnight milkshakes and the board games, the sewing and the jewelry making and the drink-in-hand socializing. The creation of a preschool because kids needed loving and she could do that. Wholly. The devil-may-care attitude that comes with eating dessert first.

This is the legacy of our matriarch. That a good life isn’t found in the assessments, in the review, in the measuring. That a good life is found in the verb. In the showing up, unapologetically, for whatever is coming next. In the smiles and the laughter and the “sure.” In the dancing and the caring and the going-doing-seeing. In the loving and the longing for love. In the ability to turn the ordinary into magic.

When it was her time, she smiled, and said “sure,” and moved wholly onto whatever comes next.

Even though my Munna is gone, she hasn’t left us.

She’s with us in our delight with the ordinary, in our ability to see the magic that can come from the mundane.

She’s with us in our sense of adventure, in our willingness to say “sure!” to whatever experience comes our way.

She’s with us in our happiness with the here and now, our ready smiles, our deep satisfaction with what we have, whatever it may be.

She’s with us in our bonds with each other, in the love and true joy we feel in our family’s presence.

This poem, by e. e. cummings, reassures us that Munna is still here, carried in each and every one of us.

—–

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

After Mindfulness

This blog is a place for exercise, a spot for me to crack my writing knuckles and stretch. In the spirit of such, here’s a piece I wrote after a mindfulness meditation exercise. Mindfulness meditation focuses on improving the connection between you and your surroundings; you become in tune with your world as opposed to separate from it. Eyes are left open to encourage connection. If you’re used to meditating with your eyes closed, try it this way and see how you like it!

—————————

Write write write write. Weave words and stories out of swirling nothingness, alchemy that turns the formless into form, the indefinable into definition. Magician with 26 props. Of all the things that have ever been invented, still those same 26 props. But somehow the magicians of today, the word weavers, the story tellers, are creating new tricks still. Don’t ever let anyone tell you every thought has already been thought.

Birds chirping, yellow leaves reflect yellow afternoon light through the leaves, the color a natural match for the golden green apple we picked in the orchard Sunday, the flesh crunch and sweet and tangy all at once, a single ingredient food with complex flavors. The simple can be complex. Paradoxes abound.

Fall day, mild. The air gentle on my skin. I leave windows open in my house, inviting as much of the outside in as I can before we have to close them again, shielding ourselves against the downturn nature takes as the days slide into winter. My hammock stretched between two aching trees, the parachute material curved perfectly against my body, one leg hanging, dangling over the side, the other tucked underneath.

Wind blows, trees creak, leaves fall, acorns drop, birds chirp, dogs bark, cars pass, dry leaves skitter as chipmunks race across them, their tiny bodies holding such big panic, such urgency, such life-or-deathness.

Mushrooms peek up from beneath the springy carpet of brown, fallen pine needles. Mysterious mushrooms. I know nothing about you. You are not plant, not animal, but growing, reaching, living just the same, ruled by the same life force as I am, as the tree is, as the chipmunk and the bird.

I sit in my hammock with my blanket and my laptop and I perform the ministrations, the magic gestures, fingers moving with ease in just the right combination to turn the feelings into words.

What’s in a Name: Part 2

(If you missed part 1, see it here.)

When I talk about breathing fire, I’m not referring to coffee breath or morning breath or unusual carnival side show talent. I’m talking about something else that people may duck and run from.

Your fire is your passion. Your fire is your truth. Your fire is the thing that lights you up and heats you up. Your fire is the thing that makes you come alive, the thing that every cell in your body responds to.

Breathing fire is about more than just knowing yourself and knowing what your thing is—and yes, we ALL have a thing. Breathing fire is about knowing what lights you up and (here’s the clencher) sharing it with the world.

Your fire does you no good when kept inside, out of sight. Without oxygen, without the light of day, without breathing action into it, fires smother and die. Without attention and action, that thing you’re passionate about just . . . dies. Your actual fire will go out. Everyone needs purpose in life. Something to look forward to, something to fight for. People who lose their fires lose their light, their spark, their motivation. A part of them literally dies inside long before their body does.

You want to write? Write. You want to photograph? Photograph. You want to teach, defend, explore, challenge, produce, protect, prepare, nurture, cleanse, learn? Do. Those. Things. The fastest, surest way to give life to a goal or idea is to just DO IT. There will always be room for growth and improvement. Don’t let some arbitrary idea of being “good enough” be the thing that stops you from breathing your fire, from putting your passion out into the world and seeing it light up.

Breathing fire is about more than just keeping your own personal spark alive, though. That purpose, that passion, that subject matter, that topic . . . without everyday people breathing fire for it . . . it dies. The actual world loses a spark, loses something beautiful and necessary. As Henry Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

The world, much like Robert Frost’s beloved woods, is lovely and dark and deep, and we need fires from each and every one of us to light the way and to push back the darkness. If there are no people brave enough to teach, teaching will die. The same for writing and defending and exploring and producing and all those other things people are passionate about. We must breathe our fires into the world so that the darkness doesn’t gain a single damn inch. So that dark doesn’t become the new norm.

So breathing fire is about honoring the passion within you and honoring the world beyond you. It’s about knowing yourself and speaking your truth. It’s about not letting fear—fear of shortcomings, fear of other people’s reactions, fear of being wrong—shut your fire down. You have something true inside, and it deserves to become truth outside.

Show your lights, people. Breathe your fires. That’s what they’re for.

So there it is. My mantra, my goal, my encouragement to myself and to everyone, everywhere. The story of the name of this blog.

Drink coffee, breathe fire.

Practice self-care. Do whatever it is that gives you strength, even if that thing doesn’t have anything in common with what gives other people strength. Value yourself enough to take care of yourself.

And then? Share yourself with the world. Verbalize your passion. Actualize it. Whatever that fire is that burns inside of you, let it burn outside of you as well.

The lovely, deep, dark world depends on it.

What’s in a Name: Part 1

Drink Coffee, Breathe Fire isn’t literally about coffee and fire. Sorry to coffee lovers and pyromaniacs alike. It’s about self-care and passion. It’s about the filling of your own cup (ha) and the infusion of fearlessness and purpose into your day. It’s about knowing yourself and sharing yourself.

Step one: drink coffee.

I am relatively new to the world of coffee. I am one of those chipper morning people. I’m sorry if this makes you hate me already. I promise I have other redeeming traits, charming things like being able to say the alphabet backward and knowing all the lyrics to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop.” When I was younger, my dad, a notorious non-sleeper, would wake us offensively early, often by beating his chest and doing crazy impersonations of a moth being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, an impression that involved him throwing himself, arms flailing, around all the walls of the living room before rolling dramatically across the floor. Being able to wake up happy was one of the few positive life skills I picked up from him, the others being a love of dancing to Texas Swing music and being absolutely undaunted by the number and type of details one might have to navigate in pursuit of a goal. I am productive in the morning, fresh and optimistic. I also love to sleep and happily go to bed early so that I can get a delicious, blanket-cocooned eight hours of resetting.

It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I started drinking coffee for more than a pure, occasional treat. It started with mochas from Starbucks, an easy way to get cozy on the occasional cool Texas fall day, or a nice frosty java chip on the innumerable baking hot days the summers offered. When I was 34, my friend and I took a girls’ trip to Spain, my first extended trip away from my then 1- and 2-year-olds. At that point I’d been dabbling a little more into the world of morning caffeine, thanks to two babies in fewer than two years and a husband whose job took him away from home a fair amount of time. But that trip to Spain was a turning point, a milestone in my coffee growth. My friend is a coffee lover, and we started each day with a much moaned and delighted over cup of whatever delicious European coffee we could find. We were two tired young moms dealing with jet lag, and it was her well timed tutelage and guidance that showed me how delightful a morning jolt can be.

It was all downhill from there. Back home, I started enjoying a morning coffee more frequently. It wasn’t that I needed it, it was more that I enjoyed it. I came to understand that coffee is a socially acceptable pause button. Mornings with two working parents and two young kids tend to start at a sprint and even more so when my husband was traveling and I was parenting solo. But everyone gladly paused the sprint for coffee. “Guess I need more coffee” was something I could say to elicit a chuckle and immediate understanding for any minor gaff. “Haven’t had my coffee yet” would, like magic, create a quieter, more gentle interaction between me and others. Coffee became a way through which I could moderate the intensity of my morning. It wasn’t a “no,” it was simply a “not yet.”

More than that, coffee became a cheerleader, a coach, someone to grab my exhausted hand and pull me up, giving me a boost into the day that, sadly, became more helpful than I’d like to admit as I aged. Coffee became the lift chair for my aging energy levels. I wasn’t drinking it every day, and I still made that mental effort to start the day with a smile and a song and a dance party, but coffee made it all . . . easier. And I came to realize that easier was okay. That I didn’t have to pick the hardest path every time. That I didn’t have to muscle and grit my way through everything. That being a little gentler with myself, a little kinder, was perfectly fine.

When I was 35, my family moved across the country. We left hot, cement-covered Texas for the greenery and snow of New Hampshire. We went from huge state with a big village to tiny state with no village at all. We had no family or friends anywhere even remotely close to us. We didn’t know a soul. There was no way to get a break from the kids, then 4 and 5, while we tried to unpack and set up our new home. I spent all day, every day, completely exhausted. It was then that coffee became a permanent, daily friend to me. It was then that I fully embraced the fact that while we may be able to do it all on our own, we don’t have to. There’s no more glory in setting up a house under the sheer determination of will than there is in setting up the house through determination, willpower, and caffeine. That, in fact, I was perhaps more productive than ever through the grace and help of coffee. And that that was okay.

So look. I get it. Not everyone is a coffee drinker. I wasn’t for a very, very long time. The “drink coffee” part of this blog isn’t advocating drinking actual coffee. Do or don’t, whatever.

What drinking coffee has taught me is that it’s okay to be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to have a pause button, and to use that pause button to create space for ourselves, our needs, and our wants. You don’t have to sprint through life under the pure power of adrenaline and determination all the time. You can do things that give you a boost, that make life a little easier, that literally and figuratively fill you up, so that you can face the day a little more effectively.

Maybe it’s coffee, maybe it’s journaling, maybe it’s yoga. My aunt, who has been happily married for more than 40 years, goes on solo retreats frequently, spending weekends away from her husband, her friends, her job, just to fill up and reset. So maybe time alone is your coffee. Maybe you knit. Maybe you moonlight on weekends as a roller derby girl named Sugar Plum Fury. Maybe you are great about daily affirmations, and maybe you just have a running dialogue in your head where you replace everyone’s name with a cuss word. WHATEVER. We all have tools and tricks for soothing ourselves and giving ourselves an extra boost of joy to make it through another day.

Drinking coffee is code for self-care, for taking literal care of yourself, first. First thing in the morning, first thing in your to-do list, first before taking care of everything else. Don’t spend your life putting everyone else ahead of yourself. Don’t become a martyr to the God of selflessness. The self is the most important experience you will have in this life. Don’t sacrifice it on the altar of others. Drinking coffee is code for knowing yourself and making self-care a priority.

Because when you do that, you can get to step two: breathing fire.

First Blog Post

This is going to suck.

I haven’t actually published any of the things I’ve written because the first post is just too big of a moment. I’ve built the FIRST BLOG POST up to mean all these things that it may or may not mean. The first post sets the tone for my entire blog. People will either read it and stay or read it and leave. It has to get them to stay! It has to be profound and funny, poignant and edgy, and of course, it can’t offend anyone. I have to find a way to dance around the minefield of the internet, saying just.the.right.tiptoe.things to at once inspire everyone and offend no one. So I haven’t published anything yet because I was still planning. Crouching down from the sideline, surveying and strategizing and list making and preparing and meditating and percolating. Because I had convinced myself that that impossible task was something I could pull off. And because I was so busy doing all that prep work, I could never move my foot forward. I was never ready enough. Paralysis by analysis.

I was explaining to my husband why I hadn’t published anything yet, earnestly elaborating on how I was still figuring out how to craft the perfect first blog post. I talked and expounded and described and painted such a beautifully crafted picture of why I was living my life in the planning stages. We were driving up state for a family hike, and our favorite way to pass long drives is to get into deep, wide ranging conversations. I had talked and talked and talked, weaving what I felt was a compelling defense of why I couldn’t possibly publish anything yet. I wrapped up my argument, tied it up in a neat little amirite bow, and fell silent, waiting for his “You’re right, that’s such a big task, you are so amazing for putting so much thought into it, I know you’ll come up with something amazing because you always do because you are amazing” response.

“But that’s impossible,” is what he actually said.

Dammit.

“Just put something up. Anything. Something truly awful and shitty. Just get the first one out of the way so that you can get over this idea of perfection and move on,” is what he said next. And then he asked if we were going to stop for a bathroom break.

That’s what I get for marrying someone level headed.

That was months ago, y’all. I found so very many distractions as we rounded out summer with my two kids. But today, today I finally got tired enough of my own bullshit. Today I got tired of planning. I got tired of wishing I had a first post up so that I could share some other random post that had been running through my mind and heart. I got tired of living in the future.

So I started my first blog post with the truth. This is going to suck. This post may suck. This blog may not serve you. I might be a terrible writer and say insensitive things and step on toes and make grammatical mistakes and give you, dear internet reader, all the ammunition to skewer me alive, to e-burn me at the e-stake with your keyboard matches. And that? That will suck. But there will be so many other moments that don’t suck, moments that aren’t getting the chance to breathe, to live, to stretch their way out of my mind because I’m trying so desperately to avoid the suck.

So today I face the truth. This is going to suck. And it’s also not.

Here we go.