I have always been a woman of faith. Of many faiths. As a child, I lived in Philadelphia, New Port News, Denver, West Point–and in each place I came across faith–from shades of Christianity–Southern Baptist and Mormonism–to Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
I grew up tolerant and curious.
When I had my own children, I wanted to share the rich world of faith with them, but I didn’t know where to turn. We joined a Native American Prayer Circle, a Wiccan celebration, a Unitarian Universalist Church and an Episcopalian congregation. Each had its own gifts, but none felt entirely like home.
Eventually, I resigned myself to home-churching my children like some do with school. I created ritual and tradition from all that had been vital to me on my own spiritual journey: poetry, silence, reflection, candles, music, dance, yoga, community, service, contribution, stewardship, teachings, conversation, questioning, birth, death, rites of passage, devotion, understanding, love.
In this way, I’ve come into a deeper relationship with myself, and the seasons inside and out… as the wheel turns. It’s too soon to tell if I’ve served my children well. This morning we shared a Solstice Brunch before they left for school. There was a quiche from our neighbor’s eggs. There were orange bees wax candles. There was a poem and a teaching about the importance of the darkness. Of balance. Of rhythm. Of rest. And then they hurriedly removed their plates and rushed out the door.
In the silence of my home, my thoughts turn toward the massacre of a week ago this morning. I remember a Pema Chodron quote I read yesterday and make a mental note to ask my boys what they think of it:
To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.
I don’t know what this world will render of my men. I know I will learn from them as they expose and improve upon my weaknesses and strengths. But neither will be central to me, as my job will be to continue my walk with faithfulness–steeping into the seasons, learning from what comes, growing when I can.
This is one of the first years that Solstice has been especially significant to me. Of all the holidays that I love, it’s the only one that is not made up, not assigned a time or meaning, or laden with traditions and expectations. It’s just the Earth, right outside of my door, tilting as far away as it can from the sun, as Winter sets in.
The older I get, the more I appreciate all this tilting and turning, and the more I understand it–in my bones.
That’s where I like my religion.
by Lloyd Meeker
Of my blood, my generation’s now the oldest, the link between the lives before and lives unfolding behind me; carries a slow simplicity, imperfect and complete.
Ancestors circle, surround me tonight, I hear them more plainly every year. This night they ask questions that have no words, and no escape.
Tomorrow when the new year’s sun strikes the keystone of my heart, what light I’ve kept alive, all I have to give, will answer.
Last night I wrote about the loss of innocence–something that can surprisingly still happen at my age. This morning I woke thinking back to my first loss, and the ensuing ones after–wondering if a timeline might reveal something–about who I am and how I want to be.
In selecting my history, I discovered that it was hard to distinguish between the loss of innocence and simple heartbreak. As I traveled through time, the searing heartache of the past week returned–climaxing at the defining loss of my life (large-texted below), and smoldering where it ended–in the excruciating initiation in which I find myself now.
It’s embarrassing to admit my innocence here–the shock that my writing is incendiary; the hurt of being thought selfish when I come from a place of healing, devotion and love; the unfairness of being labeled arrogant because I’m willing to teach and to lead, despite self doubt.
This sobering truth offers a precious freedom–not defined by what others perceive–whether with praise or condemnation; but at a painful cost–the death of illusion.
In my heartbreak timeline below, you’ll find the loss of pets, the hurt of betrayal, and the shock of mortality–just as you might in your own. My loss of innocence is also shaped by being misunderstood, and that is a layer that I’m quite ready to burn.
My Timeline of Heartbreak
Pet turtle died
New classmates pinched me
Watching my mother labor
Next-door neighbor’s father died of a heart attack in his sleep
Say your prayers, be they literal or metaphorical. Let today be the day you say yes to the light within & lay down your sorry attempts to stay small. Yes, I will serve & allow my invincible love to blaze past every limit. And so it is.
She woke at 4:22 am, but didn’t go back to sleep. If it had been a Monday, she would have demanded it of herself; but since it was Saturday, every minute she stole from the dark would be hers.
She lay in bed considering consciousness, and contemplating whether or not she’d had enough sleep to survive a day. It was a tricky calculation. After a grueling afternoon at work the day before, she had collapsed into bed before 9, only to be wakened an hour later by the door latch and the creaking of the floor and then by snoring.
She woke then as if she had napped, feeling refreshed and better equipped to face her life; but it was 10 pm. It occurred to her then that she should have taken a nap at some point during the day rather than go to bed so early. But where? Under her desk or in some corner at the office? She was once capable of that kind of surrender.
Now she turned and tossed and stewed and sighed, but despite the comfort of her ruby flannel sheets and the Sleep Number bed set at 35, she could not return to slumber.
“I don’t want him to go that party,” she finally said to her husband, about their son.
He had the audacity to reply, “You’ve woken me twice already.”
Eventually, she bled her mind back into sleep, and now at 4:44 am, she decided to rise, tossing her calculations aside.
What will I do, she asked herself as she creaked across the bedroom floor and fumbled for her robe in the dark. Should I wrap presents? Write Christmas cards? Figure out last-minute gifts?
She should, but she didn’t want to. She had grown weary of the work of Christmas. Long ago.
Instead she went in search of eye drops. After sorting and discarding and reorganizing all three shelves of the medicine cabinet, she found the small white bottle on the counter where her son had left it; weeks ago; when he thought he had pink eye.
She worried that she had pink eye too. Her eye had been itching all night. She worried about all the clutter on the bathroom counter. She worried that she no longer cared to address it. There was even hair.
She was tired. Not from waking at 4 am, but from taking care of a house and a home for so many years. She had outgrown it. Prematurely. Her boys still lived there. They were 11 and 16. She should have had them earlier.
Into each eye, she placed a drop, blinked it in, and then tiptoed down the stairs to all the objects calling for attention. The dark woodstove. The kitchen sink. The table covered in projects, half-begun. The counters, continually re-populated with crumbs and butter and clutter. They hollered at her because she had ignored them, and they watched as she took her seat on the couch and whittled away the darkness with words.
Because Christmas was only a week away, she hid from it. It was impossible to keep up. And worse yet, she no longer wanted to. She had outgrown the management of her life. How long had she been at it now? Maybe even before her mother started drinking. How old would she have been then? 10, 11?
It was around that time that she began her career in management. At first it was clubhouses comprised of friends–with meetings and dues, field trips and community service projects. Later there were basement variety shows and backyard performances. There was talent to seek, acts to plan, concession stands and ticket sales to prepare. There was the man who told her that he could report her to the IRS after which she turned non-profit. Girl Scout Cookies, UNICEF boxes and Muscular Dystrophy carnivals.
At 12, she discovered self-employment–her calendar filled every night for a month in advance. There were the large Mormon families of 5 or 6 children, and tidy Protestant ones with only 2–who had exact bedtimes and routines and assigned snacks.
She marveled at the orderliness of one particular mother for whom she babysat every Tuesday from 6:00 to 8:30–she had short, perky hair; tailored jackets; and everything planned in half-hour segments–time for play, time for the Muppets, time for a story, time for bed; while she went off with her dutiful husband to attend something called P.E.T. classes.
She never needed Parenting Effectiveness Training. She could handle kids better than most grownups. It helped that she liked them, and therefore, wasn’t afraid of them.
“We know you mean business,” a student once confided to her during her first year in the classroom.
Before becoming a teacher, she had managed a restaurant. Ever summer during college, she hired and trained 50 peers, most of whom were happy and productive and loaded by August. That first summer, she worked a hundred hours a week. That’s how much it took to turn the place around, and by the second summer, the restaurant doubled it sales, and she reduced her hours to 80. She returned to school that first summer with Mono, but it would be another twenty years before she realized how tired she really was.
Acadia National Park. That’s where it hit her. It was her first solo trip since becoming a parent. She hiked and drank tea and visited the shops in Bar Harbor. Her days were delicately expansive, as if she could finally breathe, but her nights were a total wreck. After more than a dozen years as a mother, she could no longer sleep apart from her family, especially not in a cabin in the woods by herself.
This contrast of terrifying nights with glorious days exposed shocking thoughts. As she drove Acadia’s Ring Road, which circles the park with majestic views, she saw her mini-van turn off the cliff and into the air and down to the sea. The vision came to her again and again, but made no sense. She wasn’t suicidal. She was happy. She was giddily happy.
She was exhausted from trying to be.
Happiness was her thing. By 15, her mother had assigned it to her. If she wanted her sisters to have baths with rubba-dub-dub or lullabies at bedtime, she would have to do it herself. “It’s your turn now,” her mother said.
So she made the Sunday brunches and the popcorn and the Christmas cookies. In her mother’s defense, there were mountains of laundry in the basement, and piles of dishes in the sink, and a demanding husband to serve.
Her mother had been the oldest of eight herself, and had grown weary of families long before she became a parent. Drinking was probably the only way she knew how to let go, just like her mother had done.
This might explain why she now felt the urge to tie one on after her demanding week at work; which was funny, because unlike her mother, she preferred employment outside the home to the full-time drudgery of the housewife; though both roles depleted her in different ways.
Of course she didn’t head to a bar. She went home, and joined the family to light the tree, and then tussled with the world of homemaking; and finally escaped to bed–before any of them.
It’s 6 am now, and the sky is still dark, and everyone else is still asleep. The kitchen has stopped calling, and suddenly looks peaceful in its disarray. The room is gently lit by twinkling glow of the tree, and she feels as if she’s been writing among the stars.
It’s time to start the fire and load the dishwasher and settle in to let others know that she’s thinking of them this Christmas. Maybe she’ll write those cards after all.
It’s not so much her life that she’s outgrown, she realizes, but her orientation to it. That’s what no longer fits. If only she knew how to sew.
I always feel like a fraud when I read about other writers who “always wanted to be a writer.” I never did. Until I was.
And then there are those who wrote for the school newspaper, or majored in journalism, or went on to get their MFA. They’re the legitimate ones.
Still others are lifetime members of book groups or writing groups (or both) so at least have some expertise to claim.
When I look back, I can only identify the tiniest embers of my future writing life.
There was the autobiography in which I pasted family photographs on construction paper and wrote about myself in handwriting that was so crude, it could have been crayon.
Then there was the English II assignment requiring I write something with directions. As the oldest of 6, I wrote about diaper changing, and even brought some extra Pampers and a baby Tender Love to illustrate. I don’t remember anyone being impressed. Definitely not Mr. Breslin.
During my senior year my writing flashed–for a moment–when Sister Saint Jervase escorted us out of her classroom under the Shakespeare bust, down the marbled hallway, through the foyer and into the auditorium.
One by one, she had us to step up on the stage and stand in front of the podium to do the impossible. Address an audience. I spoke about the only thing I knew well enough to tell–my family. I introduced each member, including the pets–like Cecilia, the German Shepard, who ate the diapers right off the toddlers bums and toilet paper right off the roll, before Lester, my Gram’s boyfriend, took her for a “ride,” and she never jumped through our front screen door again.
To my surprise, my fellow classmates laughed–out loud. At first I was amused, and then concerned. It never occurred to me that anyone else would be entertained by our day-to-day lives.
The next year I went off to college, where I avoided classes with writing whenever possible. I wrote one brilliant descriptive essay my freshman year–on pizza–which earned me a disappointing “C”; and then my sophomore year, I did a research paper for Abnormal Psychology on the topic of divorce–sadly inspired by real-life events.
It was at that time that I discovered journaling; and dozens of volumes later, I had nurtured a lifelong friend who helped me navigate ongoing pain, confusion and heartbreak.
I also became an avid letter writer. This of course, was in the eighties, long before Facebook or cellphones, or even email. Interestingly enough, friends would tell me that they saved my letters or shared them with others; but their voices were also laced with guilt. “Don’t worry about writing back right away,” I say, but I knew my writing pressured them.
Even as a child, my voice was non-stop. My grandparents called me chatterbox; my mother asked me to “Please shut up for a minute;” and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, resorted to putting tape on my mouth on our way to the library.
Thank god someone invented blogging so that I could communicate incessantly with someone besides myself; and without overwhelming any one person.
This is who I am as a writer–someone without a degree or a pedigree or a life-long desire to be; and this is how my writing turned toward memoir–born out of homework assignments and life’s pain and the love of family and connecting with others.
I fell into published writing in much the same way, unintentionally. First I interviewed others, and then after my second child, when I had no longer had any extra time on my hands, I resorted to sharing writing about myself.
Eventually, I sold a handful of stories to Chicken Soup, wishing I was more literary than that, but realizing that my voice was common, everyday; and that the world needs that too.
I never wanted to be a writer or a mother or a wife, and yet, without a doubt, these are things that bring the greatest meaning–and joy–to my life, each and every day.
I woke from a tumultuous night of dreams, drenched in sweat–and drugged–one foot still in the dreamworld, the other limping toward my day.
I dreamed of the arms of my first love, and the reunion was sweet, and complete, and wondrous. We were brought together for our daughter, just discovered, to collaborate on her education.
In real life that child had been aborted, and had she not, she’d be over thirty, well past the age of needing our help with school.
Details like that don’t matter in the dreamworld and so my love and I entered an alcove off the kitchen and began the dance of reunion. Only I had to tell him how to make me come. And that kind of ruined the mood, and the illusion, that in him, I would find “home”–and so as dreams often do, my first love morphed into my lasting love–my husband; and I continued on my way.
I moved through the kitchen, past the stove, and was joined by my best friend from high school. Together we walked through rubble strewn floors, just like the roads from Irene, and as we did, we smiled at friends, seated at tables in the restaurant where I worked in my youth; and then we headed downhill, past empty desks, in the classroom where I first taught.
We ended our journey together in front of a computer, and my blog was on the screen, and my friend helped me tweak its widgets.
In the morning, when I recalled this dream, it didn’t take my resident interpreter long to figure out its meaning. “It’s about the New York Times,” my husband says, referring to yesterday’s article, which launched me and my Vermont blog into a moment of a fame.
It was two and a half years ago that I began blogging, just for fun. At the time, I was searching for myself in the rubble of my years as wife and mother and homemaker. I looked behind them toward the restaurant and the classroom, but I had outgrown each; and so I began to explore new possibilities and in doing so discovered the worldwide web of connections.
Experts and teachers offered free tele-classes, and I gobbled them up each week. Blogging and Facebook and Twitter were touted by each one for networking and platform building; and despite the fact that I had nothing to network or a platform, I dove in.
Tentative at first, I soon found that blogging offered an opportunity to share my writing without worrying about contracts or copyright or fitting into someone’s format or making a buck.
I wrote passionately for another year with life providing no shortage of material to fill each new home. And then, having fully satisfied myself with this orgy of expression, I wanted more.
Not more blogging, but more substance. A book. Something solid. And so during the winter months I wrote it, and in the spring, I let in sleep, and in the summer I shared it with friends–just to hear it in their voices, careful not to ask for anything more, not praise or critique–nothing to distract me from the work.
Afterward, I put the book to sleep again, and took a long end of summer vacation, intending on resting my voice and delving into the pleasure of reading others, but instead life delivered one crisis after another, and I found myself blogging in a fury–from my son’s accident, to my best friend’s, to the murder, and then the floods.
And now this, the New York Times. An interview, and a link to my blog. No wonder my dreams were tumultuous.
I both crave a larger platform and fear it–worried that I’ll loose myself in the waves of change. The humility of my life as a mother in rural Vermont has tethered me for so long that I’m reluctant to transcend it–not wanting to let go of the earth and be trampled in the dust of ego.
That the Times and the sweat-filled dreams preceded the day upon which I was to re-awaken my book should be no surprise. With the coming of fall, my plan was to dust off this second draft and begin reading again–this time by myself–to find if there was anything worth publishing.
In the midst of all this, company arrives, and friends in need ask for help, and my family comes down with the flu.
Apparently, life and love will be the ballast I need no matter where my work takes me.