A Life Outgrown

http://uncle-rods.blogspot.com/ (globs8+omega)

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.

Kelly Salasin, December 2011

More on Christmastime:

Those Damn Christmas Cookies

“Come in and Know me better, man

Which Christmas?

The Gift of Christmas Presence


While circling the grocery store parking lot a third time, I see a bumper sticker that sums up my life:

“Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?”


Though my husband threatened a lobotomy for years, it wasn’t until the birth of our first child that I knew what it was not to think.

Days and nights passed postpartumly without any occupation for my mind. And although it continued to operate on auto pilot, there were moments when it was shut down altogether.

This wasn’t an easy transformation for me. I desperately clung to my previous life of thoughts. But what are plans and lists and goals to hours filled with diaper changing and dishes?

I remember the end of one particularly long and uneventful day. I put the baby to bed, cleaned up the kitchen, picked up the floor, climbed to the top of the stairs–and cried.

“I don’t remember the last time I had a paycheck,” I wept to my husband when he arrived home 12 hours after he left us that morning.

Early motherhood so deprived me of an outside identity, that I became a sleep junkie–wading through the thick hours of each day toward my next “fix”–the baby’s nap. There, in the countless moments on the edge of consciousness, I rediscovered my dream self.

After first drowning me, motherhood rescued me from my “doing” obsessed life. Though I couldn’t claim it at the time, I began to relearn what it was to define myself from the inside out.  I learned to float. Out of this was born my desire to write–to reconnect my new found self with the world outside.

I learned to work in bits and pieces. No longer could I, obsessed, spend an entire day driven toward a singular goal. The needs of the baby and my needs as a nursing mother shoved me into balance. Perfection volleyed for its usual attention, but I had to let her die too.

This new found freedom gave me permission to try all things new–and old–exploring the visual arts for the first time since college.  When my baby was four, we went down to the local art studio to sign him up for classes, only to discover that he wasn’t old enough.

“Why don’t you sign up for a class then, Mommy?” he suggested.

Terror seized my heart at the thought of it and I had to stop myself from saying,  I can’t! I’m too afraid. I’m not good enough. I’m too old. I can’t afford it. I don’t have time.

It was the promise of his face–and faith–before me, that led me to respond to a deeper voice.

Gogh (visipix.com)

The artist’s canvass provided a new venue for my expression of self, this time compounded with the pregnancy of my second child.

Though I had deeply desired the changes that another round at mothering would bring, I found myself unable to manage the tremendous shifts that were already taking place.

I spent my evenings in the studio isolated from classmates, painting wildly on long strips of paper with my hands.

My first piece was entitled–First Trimester Hell; the next–Opening; and then–Migraine; and finally–Integration.

Sharing my body with this second child was like being out at sea near the eye of a storm. I felt completely out of control but all the while the baby inside was quiet and calm.

He came into the world in the same way, and with blue eyes like the ocean and blond wispy hair like the sand.

My mother died five weeks later, and together we traveled 300 miles to be at her side.

I nursed him at my breast as she passed, singing a lullaby. It was the same song my midwife sang on the day of his arrival.

LaTour visipix.com)

Through this weaving of lives, I came to know that birth and death were petals of the same blossom.

This gave rise to another expression of self–the creation of a women’s singing circle. Together we sang of our connections, our dreams and our tears. My son grew up among these voices.

It was during this time that my work as a healer began to take shape. More and more, I sought to create, and in doing so, to serve. It had been such a long way home to my creative self.  She was buried in so much that didn’t matter, consumed with reaching a finish line that didn’t exist.

Before the motherhood lobotomy, the fire in me that was artist was smothered by my need for perfection, for destination, for speed.

But I found a softer place from which to orient my life. A fluidity. A grace. And I’ve come to know it and to trust in it–not through effort or accomplishment–but through experience and surrender, over and over again.

In the spiral dance of motherhood, I have learned what it is to proceed without understanding, what it is to initiate action from the heart, and what it is to allow a challenge to be teacher rather than obstacle.

What once felt like an “ending of self” created an opening from which to truly know myself. The path has unrolled before me– as it was when I was a child.   I see my life as an unending canvass and I, its beloved artist, called upon to fill it with color and light, again and again.

Am I writer? Yes. (It took many years to be able to claim those words.)

An artist, a singer? Yes, yes!

A healer? Yes!

A dancer…?

Degas (visipix)

Dancing is the fire into which I am presently called— to be the dancer of my life, the dancer of my dreams!

As I approach my fortieth birthday, I find an inexplicable desire to try ballet.

This is truly the voice of my soul–for my mind doth rage its protest:

Beginning ballet at forty years old! Do you have the body? The clothes? The aptitude?? You can hardly touch your toes! Didn’t your mom pull you out of ballet in kindergarten because you were so awful?!

Navigating my life at this moment, without my mind in the driver’s seat, is terrifying.

But I’ve been down this road before.

My children have taken me there, each holding a hand.

The “Yes” then  lies in that soft place–the one uncovered by motherhood– allowing me a slow decent to my soul.

For once upon a time, I stopped thinking… and for that, I am forever blessed.

Kelly Salasin, 2003

(Author’s note: I did take a ballet class that following season–at the local college–a mortifying and fortifying experience!  Longing for more dance in my life, I stumbled into YogaDance while spending a weekend at Kripalu in Lenox, MA in 2006–and to my continual surprise, I returned the following spring to complete the teacher training.  I’ve been dancing ever since!)


Lava’s cabin in Maine near Acadia.

At 42, I left the cocoon of my life as a mother, and set off to a friend’s seaside cabin in Maine.

I went alone–with my laptop, my journal and my drawing pad–planning a long weekend of retreat. I spread my personal things throughout the cabin–into the second bedroom, the loft, onto the desk and coffee tables, and even onto the porches; but I couldn’t fill the absence of my family.

When night came, this vacuum left me engulfed by peril–from the beautiful lapping water right off the front porch, to the Maine woods on each of the other sides of the cabin. There weren’t any neighbors to speak of–not within shouting distance–and I had this creepy seventies horror-film fear that someone or something could be lurking in the pines outside the window beside my bed.

My imagination prevented me from falling to sleep for hours into every night, and woke me early, before the dawn, exhausted, but relieved to have one less night of terror to face. What were these feelings and where did they come from? Was I experiencing some existential theater? Unresolved childhood trauma? Was I really in danger? Or was this simply the dark chasm between motherhood and the return to self?

With a map in hand, I jumped into my vacant mini-van, and drove toward Acadia National Park in the dark. A visit to the park hadn’t been part of my plans, but the previous guests had left a pass behind so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I decided to at least go see the Park, assess its merit, and return to the cabin to write in the comforting light of afternoon.

I never did return to the cabin that afternoon or during any of the following days until late into the evening, because once I entered the Acadia, I was gone. It was if I had mistakenly slipped through the cracks of my life into a slice of heaven. My small contracted mother-chasm-self expanded there–into all those open vowels, tall trees, mountaintops, lakes and streams, ocean and sky, boulders and cliffs.

On the second dawn, I drove to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to greet the rising sun atop the highest peak on the East coast. Before the day grew warm, I climbed to the top of another peak, Penobscott, and stood there alone—with mountains and water and air in every direction. On the way down, I formed a crush on a bolder and even took a self-timed photo of us together before I pulled myself away.

Me & My Bolder, Penobscott Peak, 2006, Acadia National Park.

I swam at Echo Lake and at Sandy Beach where the ocean waters barely crested 50 in July. In the afternoons, I journaled beside Jordan Pond with a pot of tea and a basket of popovers and jam. I fell in love with Acadia– and with myself there.

Why then, driving around its stunning Loop Road, did I see myself leaping from the rocks to the water below?

Were these delirious daydreams? Blissed out fantasies? Suicidal threats?

Desiring death made no sense… because I was so happy.

Happy– and exhausted– I suddenly realized–from a lifetime of holding on so tightly that I finally wanted to just let go.

This exhaustion began, not with motherhood, but with a childhood steeped in fear and abandonment–influenced by birth order (first), alcoholism (my mother’s, grandmothers’ & aunts) and divorce (my parents.)

I had been “gripping” for as long as I could remember, and I was ready to let go—forever–right here at Acadia, the closest thing to heaven on Earth. I saw myself turn the wheel so that I would fly off the road ringing the ocean and head into the air over one of those amazing cliffs; or  parking my van and carefully crossing the road before jumping–right into the water or into the rocky beach below.

These images came to me over and over again, even after I returned home–sweet Acadia beckoning me to death.

There had been two other times in my life when I’d “imagined” suicide. Once was at Christmas, the year my parents divorced.  The second was decades later in the in the winter following my mother’s death.

But if I was so ready to die, what was this fear I felt each night in the cabin?

I’ve felt it before, I realized–during a particularly poignant gulf of understanding with my husband, so that even though he was beside me, he felt miles away, so very small—or just the opposite–so close that he was a smothering giant.

This fear-induced delusion first came at four-year’s old in the huge expanse of my grandparents’ bedroom, entombed in the hum of the air conditioner, and manifested by high fever.

Where was my mother?

Where was mother when those feverish images returned years later so that the cellar shelves grew closer and closer to my bed– and then so far away that I had no idea where I was or if I existed apart from them at all?

And where were her arms when my beloved, “Licorice” disappeared; and  when I shook in terror after the neighbors family--all but the boy my age–died in a fire; or when my grandmother and aunts were killed by a sixteen-wheeler; and when I lost my first and second pregnancies?

In the face of my own abandonment, how could I ever leave my children? Who would be there for them in the horror of that loss if I drove off the cliff?

Or, (and here’s the kernel of my fear): If I found that new career that I longed for?

I’m the one who brings the forgotten teddy bear to school when Aidan calls home in tears. I the one who makes the lunches, gives the kisses, pops the popcorn, waits for the school bus.

I tend the secret fears, hold them back at night, tuck them in.

Are my arms, my heart, my self even wide open enough now to the gift of my children? Or do I stand, protected, like my mother, resigned to the inevitable loss?

How can I love that so deeply which ends?

And how do I let it all go without giving up?

Kelly Salasin, 2006

(Note: Upon the realization of my great exhaustion, I took a three-month “pause” from career searching–and just about everything else–experiencing a long-awaited “honeymoon” with self–and writing!)