If I were to claim any part of her as my favorite, it might be her hands. They dance when she is alert, fingers waving,coaxing the air into becoming her own invisible instrument. When she is startled they bunch up into tight fists and she gives them a shake or two. Often a finger or five can be found in her mouth, shiny with drool. Lately she has started to explore the opening and closing of her hands. She touches fabric or skin or anything really, and her little starfish fingers joyfully leap forward only to immediately spring back to nestle her palm again. Open close, open close. And sweetest gestures of all happen during nursing, as more frenzied activity slow to sweet caresses. She feeds quietly, eyes closed and gracefully, ever so gently traces her fingertips along the outside of my breast, my sternum, my chin. The very light touch of her fingers, so tiny, not yet hardened by life’s labor, feels more like a brushing of butterfly wings than the touch of a human, but here she is, real and mine. 6 months after her birth I still check her breathing while she sleeps. You are okay? You are okay.
His last gift to me was a backpack. A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room. If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed. Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.
How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate. In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years. I had more suffering to do. I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.
Oh, and I have risen! Nature has soothed me. Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly. From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.
The holiday season harbors a sweet contradiction. We gather around full tables. We feast until our stomachs protest, until we collapse on the couch in a food coma. We eat and we drink and we enjoy the bounties of the year, the gifts of our family and friends. It feels good, so very, very good.
And it is a simultaneously a season of longing. quiet moments masking an internal cacophony of regret and longing and grief and sadness. We miss the ones who are far away, the ones we have lost. The ones that are gone, the ones that were never here. We want things to be different, we want what we cannot have.
This Thanksgiving I remembered my friend, who died 17 years ago in a car crash. She has now been dead as long as she was alive. I was mourning her absence, feeling the echoing hole that her departure left inside of me so many years ago, and in that moment of missing her a turkey vulture soared above me, the Great Purifier. Call it God, call it science, but there is a mysterious force around us and above us. Something which takes the dead and decaying and turns it into life, into that which sustains us. And in a strange dance we can transform grief into merriment, our losses into the joy and essence of life
Life is an undulation, it is a gentle swaying between the dark and the light. A step forward, a slide backward. So we gather for another holiday. We hold each others hands while old songs play on the radio and we laugh about the days which live on in our memories and collective recollections. We are sad, but our grief allows us to feel more poignantly the joys of what we do have. We can taste the sweetness of pie and the tartness of the cranberries and we can take it all in, every bite. In this way we honor the ghosts that haunt the quiet moments, but embrace the living, embrace our life.
It is a special time of year. The nights lengthen, and the earth gives up her bounty in a brilliant harvest. Even the moon seems more generous, hanging close to the horizon like low hanging fruit.
Blessings are running thick for me these days. Last week, my writing was featured on FreshlyPressed and since then I have had hundreds of new visitors to my blog. I am honored and I am humbled by the kind words from so many people around the world. With a simple click from an editor at wordpress.com, these precious and unsolicited gifts came my way. Thank you all, for visiting and sharing and encouraging and most of all for reading. I hope you will continue to do so for many years to come.
A few days after my post went live on FreshlyPressed, a stray cat strolled into my living room, rubbed against my legs and claimed me as her own. In a breath my household expanded from one cat to two, and I smiled, knowing the world can be full of tremendous, spontaneous joy. And the following afternoon my father and stepmother arrived at their new home in the desert to stay. I have family living nearby for the first time in nearly a decade. It is wonderful. It feels like a wrong has been corrected.
There is a lot in pop culture about happiness- how to seek it, and how to keep it. To me, it seems to be a blend of luck, suffering, patience and courageous truth-seeking. I had to suffer and lose in order to open my arms wider to all the joys in life. Today, things are simple. My days are quiet and calm and full of beauty in a million small ways, and in some larger ways too. But to get here I had to speak my truth to my lovers and my friends and my husbands and my parents. I had to disappoint, I had to dismantle, I had to be brave. And I had to be patient, for everything circles around eventually.
I can say with sincerity that things are good, life is good, and I am happy.
I sort through the vestiges of a past life. A fifth grade report card. Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter. Photographs.
I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles. I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?
Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism. I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.
But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement. It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now. I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.
The now is the only place where I find peace.
I used to believe I was ahead of the curve. A precocious child, I was always a top student in class. I was reading Madeleine L’Engle and Newsweek and Reader’s Digest at age 7. While I was shy with my peers, I enjoyed charming adults with my big vocabulary and savvy conversational skills.
I tried to grow up quickly. I was the first of my friends to have a serious boyfriend, and among the first to have my own apartment, to have a professional job. I was the first to marry, the first to buy a house, and the first to divorce. I was naive and ambitious and hard-working and innocent, rushing through the passages of life with my hair wild behind me.
“Slow down, enjoy your youth,” I would hear my elders murmur. And I would flick my eyes to the horizon. How could I go slow and savor when there was so much to attain, glittering like a heat mirage in the distance? Clearly, they had already forgotten the urgencies of their own youth, the siren song of dreams and plans and goals. And I felt misunderstood.
But the everyday sorts of tragedies that have unfolded over the past 7 years in my life have proven to derail that runaway train. I have failed those that I love, I have planned and plotted and sweat blood and despite my very best efforts, had it all turn to shit. My immaturity rank, and my foolishness laid bare. But the trials and tribulations and tremendous losses have been good for me. I live life differently now. I don’t have everything I wanted and expected would come my way. But I enjoy every day given to me as the tenuous gift that it is. Perhaps the girl who thought she was ahead of everyone else is finally coming of age. Finally growing up. It just feels so very different from how I thought it would.
I roll down the window, with the breeze whipping through my fingers as I drive.
Oh yes, life is good.
I squint my eyes into the crimson sunset from a mountain peak
Oh yes, life is good
I slurp the soup that I cooked in my tiny kitchen.
Oh yes, life is good
I spin circles on the dance floor in new boots, my skirt billowing around my legs
Oh yes, life is very, very good.
I wanted her to live, but if she had to die, I wanted her to die like a flower blooms. The final opening, an expression of brilliance and beauty before the end. I wanted her to experience the greatest joys in life and reflect them inward and outward. I wanted her to smile. But if there was any flowering in her illness she was a bloom sliced off from her roots, struggling to survive in murky waters, head bowing towards a dusty tabletop that supported a tiny vase. She turned inward, leaves curling, becoming brittle and thin until the silent fall.
I still judge her for allowing this to occur. A cure was denied but she could have gone to yoga, or Mexico. She could have sat in the sunshine more. Right?
Truthfully, I was the one that wanted to flower. I wanted to take in all that life offers, from the minuscule to the infinite. I wanted to find joy and laugh and more fully exist in the world. But I was scared, and instead of facing my own choices or unwinding what bound me in inertia, I aimed to live vicariously through her. Her looming death frightened me, because I felt half-dead too. If she could show me how to live in the final months of her life, I thought I could find my way..
It didn’t go down like that. She died the way she needed to- surrounded by love, but walking her final steps alone. Now I will live the way I need to. I’m still not sure what that looks like, but I am dedicated to finding out. And maybe Mom didn’t teach me how to to go to yoga, or spend more time with my friends, but she showed me that I too can stay true to my path. I too can walk it alone.