When I woke this morning after the first decent night of sleep in over a week, I had a moment of being amazed that it can get so cool at night during this intense heat wave. It was like a breath of clarity in the midst of confusion and chaos. Life has been confusing and chaotic lately. My one-month furlough began several days ago, and it has been a month since I closed on my new house. In that time there has been a tremendous amount of intense effort and endeavoring to ready the new house to be lived in, and I’ve been both guided by and partnered with my love, who can see things that I cannot, who can sense what can be, what shouldn’t be, what might be. Walls have been removed and every surface cared for. We’re getting there.
I’ve always told myself I’m bad at transitions. From the simplest goodbye, see you later, to the larger-scale move from city to city. Liminal spaces, no matter how big or how small are filled with unknowns, and while unknowns are not necessarily frightening in and of themselves, I’ve always been keenly aware of them. Of their numbers, of their depths. I can feel myself searching sometimes, the way your toes reach for the sandy bottom of the lake bed when swimming. I am awestruck by the limitless, by everything that seems without boundary or border, the night sky, love, deep water, work, forests, fire, joy. It is not fear that strikes me when I contemplate the unknown, though I fear it is taken as such. It is the unbounded nature of the possibilities – good, bad, or otherwise – that yawn open upon a kiss goodbye, the soft thump of the screen door, the boxing up of books and dishes, the zipping of a backpack. It is simply that there is so much.
There is an unbounded universe of next and sometimes I feel as though I am somehow trying to take it all in at once, like a vista glimpsed too quickly from a moving car, like breathing in the ocean, like seeing what the clouds taste like. I like the hug that lingers, that offers me one more breath of this, of now, of known.
As I plot out the next few days of work at the house, and packing at the old, and consider all that is enjambed within those phrases, I take a moment to float in this morning of transition, instead of reaching toward the sandy bottom. To appreciate how thoughtfully and thoroughly I’ve been buoyed by love through all of this.
There is more to say, and/but much work to do. Taste the clouds and/but enjoy that hug for one breath longer.
Sometimes we find new ways to belong to ourselves.
I read recently that where we belong is not always the same as where we are used to.
That juxtaposition between belonging and familiarity is a curious one. I am in a prolonged state of transition. I have not yet moved into my new house, but have been steadily at work, along with my son, my boyfriend, and his son, to make some fairly dramatic changes there. My old house, which I’m simply occupying at this point, is in a state of disarray as I prepare to move. The yard is getting overgrown. We can only do so much to maintain both places. I have work responsibilities. I am tired.
When I think about belonging and familiarity I think of people, not places, now, which is a fine thing. I do look forward, though, to having the sense that I belong in my new space, to making memories there, building the familiar piece by piece like the log cabins my sisters and I used to make from popsicle sticks we’d collect throughout the summer. Belonging and familiarity aren’t always at odds.
The house I am leaving feels like a collection of homes, four walls filled with debris of different versions of home, good, bad, and otherwise. Here the familiar has a long history, sometimes sweet and wonderous, like bringing babies home from the hospital after they were born. The ensuing, often sleepless years, unfolding moment by moment. The familiar had its run of trouble here too and that’s ground I’ve covered before. The house is filled with discarded nests. It is all twigs and straw and popsicle sticks. There are things I don’t want to forget, and things I don’t want to remember. If I swept it all into a pile, I wonder what would be recognizable, what would still seem familiar. I wonder what to take with me.
Belonging is a funny thing. This house was mine because my name was on the deed and the mortgage, and now different pieces of paper bear that scrawl. Signing all the documents to transfer ownership for both houses, I remember looking at my signature and the way it changed from one document to the next. By the time you have signed your name fifteen times you begin to doubt that you know how to do it anymore.
[Side note on signatures and belonging: I think of the poetry of a name, the way the script mirrors mood, the way when I pen a note with the three letters of your name at the top and the roughly four and half of mine at the bottom, I attempt to corral with the shape of words the way I feel, and it feels like creating art together. It is the words as I write them and the sound of them in your head or on your lips when you read them, and what a beautiful thing it is, to make art with you.]
But despite the documentation and transfer of ownership of what I have called “mine,” what I now call “mine” doesn’t belong to me, because homes have the histories of other families and maybe in a way, the way we reshape a home to our personalities, the way we nest and re-nest over the years, is also a beautiful piece of enacted art, one that we make in collaboration with our own histories, along with those who have inhabited the space before us.
In many stories, place functions very much as a character, a real force the characters interact with, rather than simply a backdrop. Fiction that effectively executes this (Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love comes to mind readily as an example, but there are many others) is easy to immerse oneself in, because it feels like truth. We are products of our environment, acted upon by place, as much as we interact with it.
Belonging is a funny thing. I wonder if you can feel at peace with yourself and not in harmony with your personal setting, or does that peace create the sense of harmony no matter where you are?
I have the strong sense that feeling internally at peace but out of step with your environment is common, and is perhaps what propels us to look at our surroundings perhaps as a place where we do not belong, or no longer belong.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that tucked away within both the concept of belonging and in the word itself is longing. There is an ache within us to fit. I think of the two baby robins snugged in the nest at the new house. It sits securely in the crook of the downspout behind the garage. I think of how we long to feel safe, at least somewhere.
I wonder how it is built, our sense of belonging to one another? How much is instantaneous, how much constructed. I consider what that infrastructure comprised of.
And what does it mean to belong to ourselves? I was told that by the time I reached almost-fifty, I would not care what others thought of me; I would be wise; I would settle into myself. Yet I don’t settle in. I still often feel awkward in my own skin, in my own brain, though at times I have allowed myself to be at peace with that part of me.
The sparrow in the backyard at my old house pinched a beakful of just-brushed dog-fur-fluff. My dog has the softest fur, and I thought, well-chosen! What a happy, cozy little nest that will be to settle into.
And sometimes I think maybe I can settle into myself after all.
For a few of the many moments that I’m curled up in my bed but unable to sleep, I cast my thoughts outward, trying to capture as much of the world as my heart can hold in a breath, for that is all that I can handle of the chaos sometimes. It feels selfish not to try. I feel so immersed in layers of details involved in home buying and selling that I struggle to focus on life beyond those decisions. But in that effort of casting my awareness out beyond my experience, I suddenly remember fishing with my father when I was young, standing on the bank, watching the ease with which his line sang out over the river. I pull back, clumsy as ever, unable to mimic the grace it takes. I long to be bigger and better than myself sometimes.
We are told not to take for granted the things and people that make our lives feel full, rich, happy. I think about how often I say I love you and I wonder if I’m saying it as much to express the truth of it as I am to prove it to a cruel universe, as if a demonstration of love and gratitude can create a protective gloss around me and mine. I love you becomes an incantation to keep us safe and connected.
I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago when my arms were sore from painting. I moved from my desk, where I hunched and scrambled toward deadlines, to the basement where I poured white paint to neutralize my home for potential buyers. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I do. It reminds me of that summer cottage I’ve always wanted, the white paint. I spend so much time scrolling through pictures of homes in another town, hoping one will feel a little bit like it could be mine, hoping that somehow in this world of wait and restriction and necessary cautions, I will be able to complete the necessary series of business transactions. A series of business transactions that, in a way, is the transfer of ownership of a thing from person to person, but is really the worldly calculus that frames the magical endowing of home to family. (It is a strange arrangement, but if you are lucky, as I am, you get to work with people who have an understanding of not just the business but the business of magic.)
I spent night after night in April falling asleep trying to write before bed. It was all fits and starts, no sense making, clumsy constructions of sentiments in random drafts. Sometimes my best work is the simple I love you, sung across rooms, tucked in a note of freshly folded laundry to be discovered later. Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to inscribe home into every letter of a scrawled I love you.
I’ve been thinking about what home means, and now more than ever it is who, not where, and on the verge of moving I want my children to know that fact, more than ever. I want them to feel at home within themselves, I want them to know that all our lives we have to remake our ability to remake home. I want them to learn it so that it comes as readily and blindly as tying shoes. I want it to be easier for them. That is the first and most important layer of home.
The next is about the people you feel at home with, and about evolving into the idea that sometimes this will mean your family and sometimes it won’t. And that’s okay. Your idea of family expands and contracts, like a lung full of breath. But like a lung full of breath it has a rhythm, a cadence you can always find if you tune yourself in to it.
But it would be stubbornly naïve to pretend that home also wasn’t a physical place, and it’s okay to have a multitude of feelings about that place, feelings that might not always get on harmoniously with one another, just like family members sometimes don’t. It’s also okay for there to be an apparent dearth of feeling about a place. Sometimes we’ve spent them all, sometimes we will feel them later.
Sometimes years, decades, will pass, and we will suddenly remember standing on a riverbank with our father and we will remember an odd sense of home we forgot we had forgotten. Old magic. And we will realize again that what we thought was about a place really isn’t so much.
I think, too, of the brief vulnerabilities we allow ourselves when we are trying to be strong. I think of what being strong feels like, and how sometimes it doesn’t feel like trying, until we stop for a moment. Anxiety sneaks up sometimes like a soft rage of sorrow when I let my guard down. And sometimes it feels as though it is always there, like a soft flutter wings in the eves when you are lying in bed and hearing a bird take a little morning bath outside the window. It’s just there, letting you know the worrying is happening, but telling you don’t worry about it, it’s for a good cause. Learning to be at home with myself means trying to understand this.
Today definitely feels like spring, and with that sigh of air through the window, warm and a little damp and heavy with the scent of green, it’s a little easier today to feel hopeful and even content within the milieu of this moment.
Remember to protect yourself with whatever magic you can find, a memory, a feeling of home, an I love you.
These days, I collect moments. We had coffee in bed. I couldn’t name the bird singing outside as the sun was rising. I found myself becoming aware of all the details at once. The unnamed birds (somehow wilder because I didn’t know what to call them) and the tightness of the red tree buds and the morning light on our faces and the scattered and speckled pattern the coffee made on the white sheet where I spilled it.
And this: that day, was it only earlier this week? and the warm fog of my dog’s breath in the morning air when I, after days of saying I need to go for a walk, went for a walk. And it had just snowed and the flakes were thick and damp and insisting on themselves as they settled on my face and on the black spots of my dog’s coat, making much ado as they rained down on warm March sidewalks before they disappeared.
Another walk, a few days later, and it suddenly feels like spring. Another walk, trying to beat the rain, and failing at that. Arriving home, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I’m washing my hands and I see the pattern the warm raindrops made on my skin, like something spilled and scattered.
I insist on noticing the ordinary things these days, and I can’t tell if it is to keep the confusion of the world out and a semblance of peace in, or to let the chaos in my brain out and the tiny fragments of life as we knew it in. It is a permeable membrane maybe, this fragile sheen of sought normalcy. I soak beans for soup. I fold the laundry. I hum while I wash dishes.
Maybe the insistence (that normal activity exists not just in the world as we knew it but as it is now) is the result of our brain’s worrying us away from the rabbit holes of news, social media, statistics, exponential growth graphs. I think of rabbit holes, and Alice, her miscellany of sense and nonsense, the way she sought to match known world to new. Adapting.
I think, too, that rabbit holes work just fine for rabbits, and if I could only think like one maybe it would be okay down here, cozy like the little home where Peter Rabbit’s mother tucked him in bed with chamomile tea when he wasn’t feeling well.
What is the overlap between known and new? Is it simply the unfolding of ordinary moments, of insisting on them?
I think of the things we forget to insist on when we scramble to adapt to the upending of everything.
These days, I don’t just collect moments. I work, and I try to box up worry and stuff it in a corner, lock it up with luck. I’m lucky; I have work I can do at home. I’m lucky; we’re still healthy. I hum loudly with my fingers in my ears as if it can keep luck from running out. I work, but it is hard to focus. Deadlines clang in the distance like the tardy bell at school half a mile away and I remember how I heard it on the first day that school was cancelled and I don’t hear it any more, but maybe I just stopped noticing.
These days, I’m perpetually calibrating, trying to tune my psychological and emotional response to the day, moment, beat. Sometimes it’s all static.
Like anyone these days, I don’t know what to think, and coping looks different all the time. More information. Less information. Different information. Silence. Noise. Coffee. Music. Breath. I like to look at faces, sometimes longer than people like to be looked at.
It’s impossible to stop myself from thinking of how quickly things have changed, how immediately so many plans we had for ourselves seem to have unraveled. But we are nothing if not weavers, and we routinely loop things back together and of course we will do so again. Rebraid the frayed strands, remake our plans, create new ones. Adapt.
A friend reminded me recently that our days are filled with choices, though things seem limited now, constrained and boundaried in ways we weren’t able to imagine just a couple of weeks ago. We choose moment by moment to be hopeful, to proceed, to connect, to insist.
I try to read a little poetry every day. To keep writing. To keep up with the home improvements that need to be done before I can sell my house. Though plans everywhere are collectively paused, we know they won’t stay that way. Timelines might have to be reimagined, details tweaked, but we will move forward, individually and collectively. It’s what we do, what we are doing. Inch by inch. Choice by choice. Coffee by coffee, poem by poem, word by word, walk by walk. Breath by breath.
I’m trying to see something of value in the scatter of my thoughts here. I feel like I have tried to organize a few stones on the beach into little cairns, but having failed, stare at the jumble of them and stop searching for sense. Isn’t that how Alice began to navigate Wonderland? Wasn’t it easier when she stopped expecting sense? Though innately, we do keep trying.
I think of scattered things, birdseed that ends up taking root, crumbs carried away by squirrels, coffee grounds across the garden soil. Things have a way of working out, I suppose, of rooting like seeds, or nurturing in unexpected ways like the crumbs from my bread or the grounds from my coffee.
Things have a way of connecting us to other, like all those tunnels in a rabbit warren. It makes sense to rabbits. They know where safety is, and what to look for, and when, and there is comfort in that, and beauty, too. We just have to look for it, adapt. We become curiouser and curiouser.
Most of us have been through enough to know that we have some thoughts that have a mind of their own. They mine our past for memories and our future for fears and merge them into narratives that seem like facts, like calculations, like ideas that will protect us somehow, from ever being blindsided by all the things life has to offer, all our lives once did offer.
In my own experience, periods of transition and uncertainty amplify this noise. If you ever have endured a sustained period of turmoil, the thing you keep craving long after is the reassurance that somehow everything is going to be okay. I want to hear it in the background, the way you hear the wind chimes on the porch when you’re almost home.
Recently, upon returning home from looking at a house (if you know me or have been reading this blog you know I’m on the verge of a move), I fell apart a little. I grew anxious about finances and location. And it all coalesced, all the fears about the future, and memories of past failures, into a guttural off-key chorus of always-never. It was a performance I desperately wanted not to hear but I couldn’t quite find the switch to flip to turn it off. I thought of the beautiful features that drew me to the house – the historic homes in the area, the beautiful brick, the graceful staircase, the wood floors, the leaded glass door in the foyer. I thought about the rest – the broken panes in that door, the plumbing and the windows and roof work that needed to be done. I thought about my budget. I what-iffed my way into tears of worry and frustration and self-censure, sitting in the spot in front of the large heating vent in my living room, where I had, in the past, gravitated to when things were bad. My thoughts, now thinking for themselves, decided that this was all somehow about what I deserved, or didn’t, thought this would be a good way to keep me realistic in terms of my expectations about the new house, and everything else. I cranked up the heat because I was so cold suddenly, and my big dog leaned into me, trying, in that way he does, to take some of it away.
I gave myself fifteen minutes in this state. I may have taken a little longer, but I managed to throw myself with some deliberateness into the rest of my day. Looking back a few days later on those moments, I wish so much that instead of my thoughts having a mind of their own, the rest of my mind could just rally and be analytical and pick apart the faulty reasoning. It tries. But things don’t really turn around until my heart gets involved. Reminds me doggedly and wordlessly of what matters, what always matters, here, now. My heart thinks the way I imagine dog’s minds do – in images and smells and sounds, with no confusing web of language criss-crossing truth and lies until you can’t find your way out.
I suspect that anxiety is future-grief, worry and sorrow about what we haven’t lost yet. There is a steady, logical part of my brain that can say this is fruitless. There is another part of me that thinks this is a pretty good skill to have, thinks it can somehow protect me from being blindsided. My steady brain asks how it can matter; our hearts cannot really brace themselves for a punch the way other muscles can. If the world is going to hurt us, it will, whether we can see it coming or not. The thing that protects us is what we’re doing now, the thing that protects us is building a bank of heart-thoughts that we can dip into when we need to, that we can draw on to remind us: we are loved and loving, and we are strong because of it.
To those of you who are patient with me, who have spent a few minutes in conversation with me (or who have inched your foot toward mine during a late-night fit of worry, letting me know you are there for me), who reassure me with your steadiness and kindness and goodness and love, I thank you, and I hope I offer some measure of it in return. I am here for you, too.
As I hug my daughter, I want to steal back the moments I let go of maybe too easily. I tried to cherish everything I could. But when our children are ready to leave, our becoming ready to let them go gets messy. We let anger, or distance grow, because there is an illusion that it makes the leaving easier. It makes readiness appear to be something finished and beautiful, a little masterpiece of growth, and in a way, it is. But it is also green and new, for us as parents and for them as children.
My daughter left for college a year and a half ago. This weekend, visiting, I wondered, how is it that you do not live in my house anymore. How is it that we so often misunderstand and misuse time, and each other, even when we are telling ourselves different truths. I am not taking this for granted. I appreciate this moment, and that one. The easy ones, the tough ones, the laughter and tedium in between. The fact is, it isn’t possible to appreciate them all, not in the moment. But, possibly, I don’t comprehend the universes contained in each moment. The way that when mother and daughter yelled across the threshold of her pre-slammed door, the instant was a multitude, was everything that brought us there, was everything it would launch us into.
All of what I understand about living and loving could fit in a thimble. If I were a fruit fly, I would swim in it like a swan at sunrise.
At the same time maybe I knew more than I thought I did, and I let go enough and held on enough, and it is only now, with the absence of my daughter in my home a daily reminder of how life tumbles forward, that I feel as though I want to sweep it all back into my embrace for just another minute, every breath we breathed under the same roof. At the same time, it’s now, and she’s doing okay, more than okay.
The dog has found a spot near my feet. Sometimes I think he understands living and loving better than anyone, but maybe he has never quite adjusted to my daughter leaving. He attached himself differently to my son next. But soon, my son will also be gone and my dog will look at me and not understand why love has come to this. Why I, with all my insufficiencies, am the one he is left with. He will think of his girl and his boy and sigh and wish for them every day and I will come home from work and he will resign himself to loving me as best as he can. Possibly, though, he simply loves me.
I think of how many ways there are to love and how each one of them tries to break our hearts even as it expands them. Because it expands them.
I think too of the love we find – after time and heartbreak have suggested, perhaps urged, maybe you’ve had enough. I think of the way I ran toward it, us, anyway. How we sat over coffee cups, hearing each other’s voices for the first time, not really knowing what to expect of self, other, this. How learning the shape of this is a gift.
Years ago, I took a watercolor class. I learned a little, most of which I’ve forgotten. The instructor mentioned that I’d benefit from a drawing class, advice I never took. But I learned that I loved this medium, and that it calms me even if my work is simplistic and flawed, and to call it amateurish would be a compliment.
I love seeing pencil sketch lines beneath pale washes, the way the layers build and you can see both the cumulative effect and the process at the same time. It’s like witnessing journey and arrival in the same moment, even if the arrival is not at the intended destination. No, that is not the way I thought this painting of a pear would turn out. But, still. The beautiful thing is, both “good” and “bad” paintings can be witnessed and appreciated in this same way.
How luxurious it is to appreciate and be appreciated not because we’ve made it to an expected or anticipated destination, but simply as journeyers who have arrived, here, now. In this multitude of a moment. And we’re okay. More than okay.
How new and beautiful it can be to love (ourselves) this way.
Sometimes context helps us puzzle things out and find the substance behind the charm.
On the last day before taking my daughter back to college, after her short holiday visit home, we sat at the dining room table, she and my son and I, putting together a puzzle. It was a 500-piece nature scene, quite beautiful and moderately complex, and we laughed and chatted and worked silently, falling into a peace so easily we forgot about the various things we’d bickered about here and there. Tucked away, too, were the few weightier conversations we’d had, and the brief but powerful emotional storms that sweep through a household sometimes, when new transitions are on everyone’s horizons.
In the course of those few hours that we worked, on and off, we found ourselves each selecting a favorite puzzle piece. I was particularly drawn to one of the few which contained a recognizable image, a little vignette, or so it seemed to me. I liked it. It seemed to make sense on its own, independent of the bigger picture it was a part of. So little of life is like that; it so often doesn’t bother to make sense at all.
Speaking of bigger pictures, I often get the impression that my understanding of the “bigger picture” is flawed or misguided or not fully formed. But maybe, the problem is with the very notion of the bigger picture.
We blame our perception, our perspective, we question how our shortcomings keep us from seeing things clearly sometimes, keep us from understanding our lives, our place in the world. But maybe understanding is muddied because the thing we are trying to understand is a shifting, muddy thing itself.
It’s no wonder that we sometimes flounder, that we can’t grasp how all the pieces fit together, that we are at once puzzled, and puzzle.
The afternoon of the puzzle, I found it utterly impossible to snap puzzle pieces into place without becoming overwhelmed by metaphor and wonder. Sometimes I stared at pieces blankly while my brain scrambled up ideas about identity and purpose and meaning and connection and context. Sometimes I was amazed that we were able to fit any of the pieces together, particularly the ones that were part of a uniform background, the starry dawn sky, the rush of water over rocks. We hunted for pieces, each in our own way, seeking patterns in the shapes. I wondered what it would have been like to try and work that puzzle without the picture on the box as a map.
Life is built piece by piece without context, without a map. Instead, we fashion ideas of what it is supposed to look like, in general, and for us. We look for patterns, we seek partners. We create context. We are thirsty for shape, meaning, structure.
I think all of our endeavoring, this trying to see what fits together, is what connects us and binds us in a shifting world.
We create constants, foundations we hope will withstand the shifting muddiness.
When I look at the photo I took of that puzzle piece, I’m struck by how I romanticized the image. It’s a treetop. It appears to me now less like a self-contained scene, a story within a story, as it sits isolated against a dark background. Only in proximity to a sea of other puzzle pieces does the poetry of the little piece begin to hang together. You have to see it within the context of chaos to understand its clarity.
Throughout all of this reflection, which is so unlike an unmade puzzle itself, some things manage to become clear to me. I am growing comfortable with my tendency toward romanticizing things. It no longer seems a silly or naïve trait, now that I understand it within the larger context of myself. It used to be so much a part of me that I was unaware of it as a distinct characteristic but now, because I can usually see it, I can understand it is a part of me, but not so much so a part of me that I’m blind to its effects. That is to say, I do like to be charmed. I enjoy being able to see idealized versions of things, people. In a way, it is a gift. But, gradually, I have learned to see reality and substance more clearly, too. I have learned to see beyond and around charm more clearly now than I have been able to in the past, can more readily recognize, and subsequently respect, that which we call substance. This is not to say that I’ve perfected this move. Even a practiced self-awareness takes time to become a habit. But still.
When we begin to know ourselves more fully, the way the parts are related to the whole, it can be easier to make sense of things, and not just puzzle pieces.
For example, I recently began looking at houses, as I get ready to sell a house, buy a house, to move. I have been a bit afraid that my tendency toward romanticizing things, to be seduced by charm, would run amok. That my love of original glass doorknobs and built-ins and pretty little details would prevent me from seeing the enormous inconvenience of a too-small kitchen or cracks in a foundation. Happily though, while I did feel that swoonful delight in vintage details, I also witnessed myself being able to see the place as a whole – clearly – and to know it wasn’t right for me. (Happily, too, I find myself lovingly supported on this journey by someone who is not only charming – he has the best smile – but who is full of substance, and who is very much looking out for me. Thank you.)
To put it another way, that little puzzle piece, and my affection for it, make more sense when the piece is viewed not in isolation but within the context of the jumble of the unmade puzzle. Looking at it as a separate thing, I’ve wondered, why did it seem so significant? Sometimes trying to remember the sense we’ve made of something is as challenging as trying to remember song lyrics that we misheard the first time anyway.
But we can gain a new understanding of ourselves, and maybe even one another, through this effort of sense-seeking, even when the context is initially unclear. We recreate context when we return to the effort of the puzzle. And we can do the same in terms of our understanding of ourselves, of each other, of what connects us to one another.
It takes sustained effort, but we can and should create and recreate and build and strengthen the connections and foundations to withstand the muddiness of an ever-changing big picture. There is substance there, in that context and in those connections, and we should seek it, regardless of how dazzled we are by the charm in a detail — whether it be a puzzle piece, a vintage doorknob, or a warm smile.
Sometimes it’s impossible to not think of masks and the tricks of time.
Let’s talk about the October of a few minutes ago, the one that got away from us in a last late rush of wind and rain, and the way it feels quite suddenly that fall too has disappeared, a dog slipped free from his collar who is now halfway down the street.
I think about the shape of time and how we package it. Every so often we are hit with this sense that time is rushing along faster than it ever did. We like to say it plays tricks on us. Only when we are bored, or clutched by some physical or emotional pain, does it seem to slow. We box time into comprehensible components – seconds, weeks, years – or bundle it into memories. And in this way, it is intrinsically tied to who we are. So much of our identity is built this way, memory by memory, and maybe we are the shape of time, a physical manifestation, or a border anyway.
But how did this October slip by so quickly, and how is it that when we remember bad Octobers we know they went on forever, as if there were long empty stretches of weeks embedded between the days? But those were maybe just the nights I couldn’t sleep.
Though we remember pain and grief differently than the way we look back on joy and laughter, all the memories are components of our soul-DNA. If you stripped out this memory or that one, would I be the same person I am now? I suppose everyone has days in which they are not particularly fond of the person whose life they seem to be inhabiting, and maybe the experiment of selective memory stripping would be one they’d be willing to take on, but I think it would be a dangerous game.
What is perhaps under-sung is the notion of the ordinary moment, the seemingly mundane experiences we scarcely remember that are, in a way, the connective tissue of our days and our selves. The big memories, all the firsts and lasts, and ceremonies and delights and gutting griefs, they all are spotlight hogs. But what of all the minutes and hours and days in between?
In a way, we are collections of ordinary moments. We are pumping gas into empty tanks in older model Mercurys. We are grinding coffee beans. We are holding hands. We are standing in line, holding too many items because we thought we wouldn’t need a basket. We are holding too much sometimes. But sometimes it’s just enough to get us through the express lane and home to dinner.
I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be able to remember all the ordinary moments of a lifetime, or, perhaps more manageably, just of that October that so recently broke free and slipped away from us. Why would I want to forget that moment standing in line at the grocery store, juggling bread and almond milk and coffee beans and sugar, along with one yellow onion and a bag of apples? In that moment, maybe I thought of kissing my love, maybe I thought of what would happen next in the story I’m writing, maybe I noticed the way the baby in front of me smiled at her sibling, and maybe that made me think of my own children when they were that little. Maybe I just stood there and let my mind drain free of the workday, and it was pleasant to not think or do anything for an instant, with only the ache in my arm and the smell of apple and onion and coffee reminding me of my current reality.
I don’t always know why something suddenly feels important to me, why I must think now about the significance of the mundane minutes in our days, or why I’m compelled to poke around in the murkiness where time and identity mingle. I remember being ankle-deep in a wide puddle. I was a child in rubber rain boots, standing in the low part at the back of our corner lot, stick in hand, poking in puddles. I remember that I probably pretended that I was fishing, though I probably was too old to be pretending, and I remember the hot prickle of embarrassment when the neighbor boy, my age, road by on his bike and asked me if I had caught anything yet, as he laughed and pedaled away.
What am I doing poking around in here anyway? Have I caught anything? Is there any point to wondering who I might be, if I could simply not remember feeling so childish and silly and stupid for that collection of odd minutes when I was an odd child?
But this too is part of who I am. Our metacognition shapes us as much as anything, what we feel and think about what we feel and think. In a way, it is a through-line, spanning years, weaving through moments, good memories and bad. The way we consider ourselves, including our own thoughts and feelings, evolves slowly, and it reaches both backward, overlaying context onto the past, and forward, projecting different versions of ourselves into the future, as we wonder how it might be to be this type of self, or that one, in five years or ten.
Last night, as I sat on the porch with my son, I watched the last of the trick-or-treaters drift off toward the next puddle of porch light. How can we not think of time and memory and identity on such nights, when it all blurs together, the masks we wear, the identities we inhabit over time, discarded, taken up again, all of it mixed up into a dark October night with red and yellow leaves plastered by rain to the sidewalk like so many candy wrappers.
I want to say it was just one more ordinary moment, but I’m beginning to believe that none of the moments are ordinary, really, if you think about it.
Maybe, the way we think about the way we think about it all is the formula for shaping time and self differently, for urging the boundaries into new directions and possibilities. Maybe there is some sort of magic at work here, playing upon our brains as one month turns arbitrarily into the next and we turn our clocks back tomorrow and play with time some more. Maybe I simply like the idea of expanding time and not losing moments, not any of them, because I like it here, I like me here, and I like you here, and maybe looking around at all that is all we really need to do to sometimes.
Sometimes we feel fragmented, abstract; we are connected.
I keep unfolding this origami shape, trying to make a kite.
What’s the right way to look at the work we do? Does anyone notice the difference between folding and flight?
We are told to do the work, and we want to, and it comes as easily to us as flight does to a thousand paper cranes.
It is easy to believe we are doing it wrong. It is easy to believe that there is a dull ache, there are sore muscles, even when we are doing it right.
And everything is right.
Everything is all right.
I’m not not spelling it out in order to obfuscate; I wouldn’t do that to either of us. I’m not spelling it out because the test is wrong, and I know the answers, but not to these questions. We know everything, and we have never known any single thing.
I know this: I draw hearts in Douglas fir sawdust with my fingertip, believing always in yes, now, this.
We whisper wishes into night, day, storm, sun. We whisper gusts. We keep the kites aloft.
Some days I don’t know where to begin. I think of how hard our psyche rushes in the background, trying to escape remembered danger or pain that isn’t anything now, isn’t more than paper in a puddle, but we wake up exhausted anyway.
Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the way we work is in a straight line, as if we don’t loop back around again, as if we won’t need to. And I think of the way a kite stays up, and the way when I was little, I ran in circles trying to catch the wind in the muddy field with my father. My feet in boots navigating slippery clumps of soil, heavy grey clouds churning above his head as he ran for the string that slipped through my fingers.
And I think of catching and holding, and running, and waiting for the wind, and fighting it, and those few moments in between when it’s all just grace and flight and lift and it feels like it’s no work at all.
Let’s give each other the space and grace to navigate, to slip sometimes, to falter. I’ll give chase for you.
Sometimes work is a four-letter word, the way we put ourselves back together every day, for ourselves, for each other. Do we privilege one audience over another, and why do we feel maligned for doing either, or both?
I’ve been gripped for the past several days by a certain melancholy I can’t quite source. Touching base with a number of people in my life, I hear they also feel marked in this way. I think about the things that we sense collectively, the cold heaviness of a loud, mean world. I think of the way it makes us feel separate, though we are feeling the same thing, each in our own way.
I think of this: sometimes the kite string doesn’t simply slip from our grasp because the wind was strong or because we slid in the mud. Admit it. Sometimes we let it go. Sometimes we woke up exhausted. And I think, I’ll chase that for you today. Will you help me start again, tomorrow? I think of the way I was given paper. The way I watched you transform a thousand origami cranes into kite, the way I managed to let the wind take mine again, though getting into the air in that day was a feat, and you said so.
Sometimes I try and take the view of the kite, and look down on the field, on all the endeavoring, and I’m struck by the earnestness of it all, by the web of string, the kaleidoscopic pattern of arms outstretched, by the chasing we are willing to do, for ourselves, for one another, even though you can only see it from this vantage point.
Sometimes we make a path both known and possible by drawing it.
When I was a child, one of the most delightful and satisfying experiences I knew was that of opening a fantasy novel and discovering a map in the opening pages. Whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth, Earthsea, or a lesser-known place such as Hed being depicted, I was captivated. Sometimes, I was inspired enough to sketch out my own maps, too, of places that had no stories or characters, but that I envisioned nonetheless. I penciled in borders, mountains, seas, rivers, and cities, making it up as I went along, happy that the only right way was the way I was drawing it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those maps lately. Remembering the crackling sound of worn library binding, the smell of freshly mown grass. An old cotton blanket spread beneath a tree, half in and half out of the shade. Reading for hours during summer vacation, when it seemed to span far longer than a couple of months.
Looking back now, I can see more clearly what I loved about those maps, but would never have been able to articulate back then. They were an achievement in the realm of the impossible, a carving out of a something from nothing, from mystery, from void. They sketched out meaning and shape and form in line and letter from the unfathomable. How beautiful is that? To map out a place that doesn’t exist and give it to someone else and through the words you place around it, make them believe, or half-believe, that it is a landscape that could be traversed, at least by someone.
I think of half-believing, and what a gift it is.
I think of unmappable, shapeless places, the paths traversed between past and now, now and future, peaks and valleys of emotion, the roads and streams of memory and want that form through-lines through the course of our days. The longing to map it, to give it shape, is not so much about understanding where to go. It is more about acknowledging how little we really know of ourselves, the kingdoms of brain, heart, dream, past, ache, love, fear. What is the truth of our own personal terrain, what level of consciousness do we actually possess about why we do what we do and think what we think and feel what we feel?
I wonder sometimes how many neurological processes are involved in deciding which coffee cup to use, if I should say this now, will this sweater be warm enough, is this the right time for this action, or that. Theoretically, I suppose, one could map the firing of synapses, a decision in the brain to move the hand to reach for this cup or that sweater, but can any of the rest of it be traced? The way the memory of wearing that sweater the morning I sat next to you drinking coffee made me want to wear it today? It won’t be warm enough because it is a light sweater, but it will be warm enough because I will think of you all day.
I think we want to know which path to take and what obstacles might be faced on the way but we also want to know if knowing matters. I wonder if I’m on a quest at all, like the adventurers in the stories of my childhood, or am I free to discover as I go?
I wonder if we create urgency around time and destination because we feel we ought to, because everyone else is, and is there a way we get left behind if we don’t figure this out?
I think of mapping this hidden terrain because I suspect it’s more beautiful than I can imagine if taken in as a whole and I’d like to see it that way, if only for a moment. Would it be like standing in a clearing in the woods in the dead of night, waiting for that one moment when the moon slips free of the clouds?
What is (to be) lost and what is (to be) found?
Thinking back on those maps of fantasy worlds from childhood books, it is impossible, really to separate them from the stories that go with them, the characters who journeyed through these worlds, sometimes alone, sometimes with an unlikely band of adventurers. There was usually a seemingly impossible quest. Protagonists often were lead to discover that they couldn’t do it alone, and, just as often, that there were some things that they could only do alone. I get that now.
I wonder sometimes, if we’ve all been mapping out the same place, but each of us, from our own perspective. I wonder about the way we journey alone and together, and how easy it is to confuse the two.
I think about how difficult it is sometimes to admit there’s no map, though wouldn’t it be nice to know that as long as we kept the river on our left and continued north we’d be okay? I think about the clearing in the woods, and the waiting for the moon. When there’s enough light to see by, should we look at the map, or look around us?
The thing about maps is that they often lead us to believe there are right answers, best routes, clear paths, known quantities. And maps of fictional places always imbued in me a half-belief that anything could be charted, made known, ordered. In fact, we can barely map where we’ve already been, let alone where we currently are, even if the moon is out and shining on our clearing.
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t navigate. That doesn’t mean we can’t reach out a hand in the dark and lead one another. It doesn’t mean we can’t compare notes, learn from each other, see the way our paths are intertwined, because they are. We can cheer each other on the solo parts of our journeys, we can be cheered on, we can let ourselves be buoyed by cheers. We can lean on one another, in the dark or in the moonlight or as the day breaks.
And as far as maps go, the only right way is the way we are drawing it, and we make pathways possible when we imagine them and we can at least half-believe in that, because it is the same as believing anyway.