The impeded stream is the one that sings

brisbane fog.png

Back when we left for Australia in 2012, I was preparing my dissertation proposal but in all honesty not entirely sure how realistic it was to expect to finish.  I had started a PhD at Tufts several years earlier and had incrementally finished the coursework and the internship and the qualifying review, studying at the table alongside my kids and at times putting school on the back burner for a season or two when my family needed more of my time or when I served in more demanding church callings.  Pursuing this degree was important to me but it was HARD, there were many bids for my time, and often I wasn’t entirely sure why I was putting myself through all of it. 

After the move to Australia, it was particularly difficult to coordinate with my committee from so far away (and, oh, that killer time zone difference!) while working with a set of data on the other side of the world.  I came very close to quitting but as I considered it I felt a quiet but unmistakably insistent nudge to continue.  Even with that reassuring nudge, it was still arduous--in absence of any in-person colleagues or mentors to talk through ideas with me, I had a particularly difficult time articulating my thoughts and formulating my theories into written words, let alone feeling confident about their value once they were there on the page. 

Finally the time came and I headed from Australia to Boston to defend my dissertation. It was a crazy trip--I ended up getting delayed 24 hours in Brisbane due to some flukey, rare fog, which made it a 56-hour journey, my longest ever. Right on the cusp of presenting my research I had an experience that weekend that really felt like a bit of a personal blessing--a small thing, really, but something that felt holy to me. 

The dissertation defense with my committee was scheduled for 10 a.m. on a Monday in June.  I flew out on Friday and attended an inspiring Saturday evening session of stake conference (like a diocese regional meeting of several congregations) with friends in the area where I used to live. The next day I wasn’t entirely sure if I would go back up to stake conference again. I was fully in the throes of jet lag and I reasoned that I had kind of prepaid my church observance the night before. I thought maybe the time would be better spent going over my notes and fine-tuning my presentation for the next morning. Ultimately, on kind of a whim, I decided to go. 

So there I was, fresh off a long journey from Australia, in a congregation that was no longer my own, on the threshold of defending my dissertation. I felt worried and inadequate and unsure but so very relieved and grateful--almost there.  And then. The new presiding stake president (whom I had never met before; he moved in after we left) stood up and began his talk by sharing a personal, tender experience about his own dissertation process, the vulnerabilities he felt, and the poignant questions he asked and answers he received as he tried to complete that challenging goal.

What are the chances of that? I have never heard a dissertation story in church before. Sitting in that congregation, I felt known and comforted and buoyed. I was reminded (as my tear-splashed notes from the talk read) “that when we present our best efforts and include God in our struggles, He can bring light to dark things, brilliance to dull things, divinity to earthly things.” It felt like a benediction.

. . .

Recently I was thinking of this experience and how we serve as blessings in each others' lives. So many people aided my efforts to finish this undertaking. They gently guided me out of the weeds or opened doors when I was pacing anxiously at the threshold. These included big things like G's confidence and go-for-it-ness and my kids' immense enthusiasm for my goals. And small things like drive-by moments of thumbs up and encouragement and check-ins and, yes, these words in a talk given on a not-so-random Sunday.  

If you're spinning your wheels or wandering in the weeds or despairing at creating something you have your heart invested in--a book, a painting, a feeling, a study, a degree, a family, an assignment--I just want to say: dead ends sometimes turn into launching pads. Bewilderment sometimes opens us up just enough to the right questions that we begin to live the answers. Words and glances and snippets sometimes become leaps. The reward is sometimes found, oddly, in the impediments.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go,

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~Wendell Berry

Turn (45) for what?

Let's talk about birthdays. They just keep coming and I just keep turning whatever number I'm given. In previous years I've never been too hung up on the actual number I'm turning--and I actually really love this decade that starts with 4. Still, when I turned 45 a couple of weeks ago I was surprised that I did stutter over it a bit! 

The birthday itself was really great. I got to have two days' worth of birthday wishes--my Australian birthday and my American one. G had conducted sneaky reconnaissance on my Pinterest boards and had thoughtfully chosen some things that I had been secretly (but not so secretly, after all) pining for, like:  

  • three lovely thin silver stacking rings ("one for each child!" I happily exclaimed when I unwrapped them. "....Um, yeah!" Greg almost successfully improvised),
  • a luscious fountain pen,
  • a wooden pineapple-shaped chalkboard (because I sometimes text my signature celebratory pineapple emoji to my kids).

That guy is pretty fluent in my love languages by now, one of which is thoughtful (not expensive, not outrageous, just lovingly selected) gift giving. And maybe I have finally internalized that you have to actually articulate your expectations rather than expecting miracles of mind reading and other such sorcery. (Remember last year's birthday lesson?

And yet 45 was unexpectedly hard! I had planted it in my head that it's pretty much smack dab middle age. And it kind of is, you know? (If I'm lucky, that is.)  It feels like a time for re-evaluation and recalibration and reorientation. Lots of re.  It's a time to wash the metaphorical laundry midway through this mortal journey before repacking it all up again and figuring out the path ahead. Dante nailed it:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost 

(Inferno)

G and I went to lunch that day and I confessed and warned him that that precise, particular moment--the noontime on my 45th birthday--marked the apex of my life. All downhill from here, buddy. Undaunted, he seems convinced that the next 45 can be pretty terrific and is willing to continue to blaze the trail ahead a couple of years.

It's just a day, this birthday, another in the long string of days I'm blessed to have. Still, it has me a bit more tender than usual. Passages in books have me weepy with love for the beauty of words and the accompanying twinge to string together a few of my own--almost an anticipatory regret if I don't find my voice and just do it. And my dissertation is ripening on the shelf. And I want to walk places, see things, deepen my compassion and cultivate my corner of the garden. I'm reading Wendell Berry's book Hannah Coulter (so good!); midway through Hannah says "I began to know my story then."

45 sounds as good a time as any, yes?


What's your approach to birthdays and turning another year older? Do you celebrate or mourn? And, perhaps more importantly, what's your signature emoji?

p.s. Parts of this post appeared first in a birthday post on my personal blog last week so if it sounded familiar to some of you, that's why. Yup, I stole liberally from myself. 

School Disorientation

As an American in Australia, I get a serious case of September envy this time of year. This week my Instagram and Facebook feeds are filled with darling photos of returning scholars--preschoolers to college students--posing in the morning sun with wet, comb-tracked hair, brand new shoes & crispy jeans and basking in that hopeful, heady glow of new beginnings. (No filter needed.) It makes me get all Joe Fox/Kathleen Kelly-ish: I would send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address. (Really, it goes beyond the back-to-school photos. See also: apple orchards, fall boots, cozy sweaters, brilliantly colored leaves--on trees or in piles, jam making, garden harvests. Oh, September you are so wonderfully cruel. Please don't stop.)

And then I look out the window, the planet tilts and I am in late winter/early spring, which definitely has its joys and delights but...still.  It's a little disorienting, frankly, and even after two years I have to take a split second to locate myself in the correct season. After all those decades of apple-y Septembers and autumnal Octobers, my seasonal clock is more difficult to reset than my time zone one.  I'm not complaining; it's just so weird. And I think social media makes it more difficult than ever to be here now, with such easy windows into what's going on everywhere else.

Here the kids are no longer basking in that clean slate, new beginning glow (that wore off back in February).  The pencils, figuratively and literally, are no longer new, no longer in bouquets, and rarely sharpened. There's a lot of homework and studying happening (and yes, a little stress) around here as the kids are midway through their third term of the school year. Maddy's life is particularly filled with studying and deadlines as she zooms toward her final IB testing in November. The International Baccalaureate program has a lot of positives but it is definitely rigorous and demanding. And because of how the Australian schools grading systems are set up, Maddy won't have a GPA when she applies to universities in the US; instead she will submit her IB scores, which are mostly comprised of the test scores she receives from comprehensive exams at the end of this year, covering two years' worth of content. But no pressure, ha!

(Here's a little bit more about the IB system if you're curious.)

While I'm vicariously living the back-to-school, early autumn bliss through my US friends, Maddy's FB feed is filled with all of her high school friends' posts about leaving for college, their new dorms and roommates. This would have been Maddy's life right now, too, if we hadn't snatched her off to Australia, where the class of '14 graduates in November rather than June. Instead she has an extra five months of school and will start university a year behind her US cohort. Secretly (or not so secretly) we're glad to have her around for this bonus Maddy time but I know it's not easy for her to see everyone else moving on into their exciting new lives and opportunities. But she's been a good sport.

As with most things in life, though, there are tradeoffs. When the northern hemisphere is shivering in January tundras, we will be basking in beachy sun. And Maddy just found out  that she was chosen for the UN Youth Australia delegation to the Middle East, something she definitely wouldn't have been able to do if we hadn't come here. As you can imagine, Maddy's thrilled. It's the light at the end of the IB tunnel for her. As you can also imagine, I am equal parts excited and nervous for her, my protective mothering activated by all the news of violence and unrest in the region.

Shhh, mother bear. It'll be fine.  And, hey, look! Is that a daffodil coming up?

Dating Tip #1: Be Selfish (A Guest Post)

I remember a conversation I had with one of my daughters once, one of those discussions that outlasts the ride home so you sit in the driveway for an hour, finishing up shoulder to shoulder and gazing out in the same direction. We had somehow navigated to the topic of dating and the someday reality of choosing (waywayway in the future) someone to marry. But I was clumsy and bumbling about expressing my thoughts that day and I don't think either of us left the car feeling very understood.

Maybe you'll understand why, then, when I read a recent post by Meg Conley I cheered in recognition. (Have you discovered Meg in Progress? If not, you are in for a treat. If yes, you know exactly what I'm talking about.). These were the words I meant to say that day in the driveway, granting absolute permission--issuing both an invitation and a license, really--to be selfish in choosing someone to date and (someday, eventually) marry. I'll read this to my kids at the right moment; maybe you will find these words helpful, too. Meg's graciously agreed to let me repost her piece here today:

I was talking to a good friend the other day about the pitfalls of dating.

There was a boy. He wasn’t that nice and he wasn’t that mean. He talked like he cared and acted like he didn’t. When she walked into a room he would make his way to her eventually. They had dated and then didn’t and then dated again. At the moment, they were back to didn’t.

We laughed our way through the ridiculousness of the conversation until she wasn’t smiling anymore,

“I don’t know. I want more. But is that awful? Setting my standards too high? Being too selfish?”

And then the laughter left me, too. I wanted to hit out at the people, places, situations and inner dialogues that have convinced so many of my sisters that “wanting more” is an unforgivable act of self-centric thinking. As if somehow the pursuit of a life partner is an act of charity and to take our hopes, hurts and desires into account betrays the nature of the enterprise.

I can remember spouting off the same misgivings and gentle questions. Anxious and sure my worth depended on the eyes and evaluations of others. Thank the Heavens for parents that slapped the words out of my mouth almost before the left it. (Well, it wasn’t a literal slapping. More of a rhetorical beating. Really, I admire their restraint.)

They’d throw their hands in the air and talk emphatically. Didn’t I know that choosing my husband, the man I would make my life with, was the most selfish decision of my life? That it was one of the last times that I could sit as a single entity and decide to get exactly what I wanted without the interference of pledge or the obligation of a shared life, shared children, shared disappointments, shared hopes? Be selfish, they cried. Seek for the best. Make yourself what you want and don’t bend for a man that can’t appreciate the god given, mortal mess you are. Find a man to partner, not a boy to parent. Walk away if it gets too hard, too hurtful, too disappointing. Right now, you don’t owe anyone a damn thing. Not a week, not a month and certainly not your whole ever loving life. You don’t owe anyone anything. You only owe it to yourself to find what you want. You get to have what you want. Meggi, what do you want?

It seemed so counter-intuitive. I remember arguing with my dad over it once. At the time, I was dating a boy that made it seem like sacrifice of self was really the sacrament of love. And I believed him. How, I cried to my good dad, how can marriage – the most self-less of institutions – begin with my most selfish decision? Didn’t he know the heart hurt sacrifice of self had to begin beforehand? Didn’t that make the most sense? The good man looked almost disappointed in me. He and my mom had raised me for twenty years and these were the questions I still pondered. I have to admit, it didn’t say much for my learning abilities.

He said my name once,

Megs…

and then cleared the tears out of eyes and throat with a wipe and a cough.

…you are selfish in choosing a mate because once you commit yourself to a person you’ve decided to never be truly selfish again. Sure, at times you will take time for yourself and splurge and do all the fun stuff we do when we say we are being selfish. But you will never again be able to live your life with only thoughts for yourself, not really. And that is a beautiful thing. If you and your husband are living your marriage correctly you will always be thinking of, working for and loving one another. The selflessness of marriage is the kind that lifts each party up to a place they could not have reached alone. It is not a sacrifice of self. It is a clarification of self. Marriage should make you more of who you are. It should refine you. Both of you. Anything less than that isn’t worth your time.

I think at that point I grumbled something about him always having to be right. He laughed and then was serious again.

Listen, it is important to remember that you are not just being discerning, and yes, even selfish, for yourself. You are being selfish for the children that will eventually come into the marriage. Is this the person that will help your sons and daughters understand their place in the world? Can you both create a sanctuary of love and learning for them? Maybe you aren’t at a place where you can see you deserve that, but surely you know your children deserve it. I hope your mom and I gave that to you kids and I hope you do the same for your own.

It was an eye opening conversation. For years, my parents told me I had great worth and deserved more happiness than my inward thinking heart could fathom. I didn’t ever believe them. But that day when my dad talked about my daughter, I knew, I just knew, that unknown girl was worth the price of a star and then some. I knew she deserved the kind of joy that could crack the universe in two. And somehow, knowing that about her helped me understand it about myself. I had to give her what she deserved and the only way to do that was to get exactly what I deserved.

So I broke up with that boy. I stopped asking those questions and started asking others. Who was I? What did I want? How could I create my own happiness? And I started living the life I hoped my daughter would lead. One with query and laughter and legs that moved me from moment to moment to moment. Until, somewhere in between a good book and a little grand adventure, I found, and was found, by the kind of man that made me want to be selfish one last, glorious time.

We’re not perfect. I can’t even see perfect from the place we reside. We fight and misunderstand. We hurt and are hurt. We work and sweat and love and kiss and start over again. It’s messy and hard and there are days when I can’t wait for the morning. But I can appreciate his God given self amidst all his mortal mess and he can appreciate me and mine. And sometimes, when the light of our lives is just right, I can see us lifting one another to that gold lit place.

Sisters, stop asking if your standards are too high, if you want too much, if you are being too selfish.

Figure out what you want. Don’t settle for anything or anyone less. And then, once you and that worthy man find one another, work, love and pray for each other as if your heart and souls depend on it.

I hope you do it for yourself. I know you’ll do it for your daughter.

You both deserve it.

Hey guess what? You are completely complete even without “Mr. Right”. Read here and here.


Meg Conley is a writer that specializes in topics of womanhood, motherhood, childhood...basically all the 'hoods. Her blog, Meg in Progress, is quickly becoming a nationally recognized platform for women’s issues and day to day inspiration [and it's also where this post originally appeared]. She speaks at conferences about the glorious state of womanhood and is lucky enough to hang out on TV, HuffPost Live and Sirius XM radio routinely. When she isn't being honest about being a girl, she can often be found holed up in the bathroom sneakily eating left over Easter candy while hiding from her children. 

 

Be still, my heart

"Making the decision to have a child -- it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." --Elizabeth Stone

I've always thought that quote was a bit over-used and cliche. That is, until last Saturday when I received a phone call telling me Jordan had an infection in her leg. It was her mission president who called -- and in case you don't already know, a call from the mission president is never good news. When I realized who was on the other end of the phone, I took a deep breath and braced myself.

It was all a bit confusing at first: She'd been to a doctor. She was seeing another doctor. They'd call me on Sunday and update me.

I instantly felt uneasy, sick to my stomach. But I did my best to push my fears aside. I'd wait to hear good news.

Sunday morning I woke up early. France is seven hours ahead of us, so I figured I'd hear something early. My anxiety was increasing as the minutes ticked by, so I started straightening up, putting dinner in the crockpot, anything to keep my mind from resting solely upon the what-ifs of Jordan's situation. By 11 AM my time, I decided I'd have to call (or run screaming into the street).

Guys, they were still trying to get her admitted to a hospital -- essentially begging for IV antibiotics. Meanwhile, her leg is now an angry red from her toes to the top of her thigh. The mission president and nurse were working different avenues to help her. There was even talk of putting her on a fast train to Paris. My first instinct was the grab my purse and head to the airport. But time wasn't on anyone's side. She needed attention quickly. Not in five hours. Or twenty hours. Also, I don't speak a lick of French. So, instead of doing anything, I relayed the information to Sterling and cried in my bathroom.

And I prayed. I prayed fiercely. I prayed that the infection would slow. That the doctors would use the right medications. That her body would be healed. And my heart, the one that was now in a hospital in France? It hurt.

The good news is that the antibiotics seem to be working. Her biggest problem right now is an intense case of boredom and the hospital's reticence to use the air conditioner. Word is that she may be released on Thursday -- that's almost FIVE days in the hospital. And all the while, I've been a world away, biting my fingernails, working myself towards an ulcer.

This part of my heart walking about, unprotected, is my hardest part of being a parent. I want to take all of my hearts, wrap them in bubble wrap, and lock them in a room upstairs -- taking them out only when the weather is perfect, the alarm is engaged, and I've fully got my wits about me. But those darn hearts won't be contained. Already they are wandering off into the world, seeing Broadway plays, walking home after dark, mucking about in piles of germs. I'm not exactly sure what to do about this. 

I suppose there is nothing to be done but to train my hearts towards love and away from fear and bitterness. To truly observe the joy that they bring me. To invest in a good colorist (many gray hairs this week). And to close my eyes and hold on tight.

The tango

Drawn to The Song of the Lark , Karin Jurick

Drawn to The Song of the Lark, Karin Jurick

"You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you’d given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless. You wouldn’t know the outcome for a long time.”  

Meg Wolitzer, The Ten Year Nap

. . .

I've been thinking about proximity and parenting. In the early years my closeness to my kids was primarily on their behalf. I mean, of course I enjoyed it, or at least abundant moments of it. But in the early years proximity meant their survival, safety, some element of insurance. I was enlisted to deliver these young, blooming humans to adulthood and I will admit that sometimes I sighed in the service of irrationally demanding infant sergeants and capricious toddlers whose needs sometimes felt a tad at odds--if not inverse--to my own. Sometimes the only time away from them was the moment or two in the bathroom, with a child crying and jiggling the doorknob on the other side. One of the essential tasks of that early relationship felt like a tango, with their pull for closeness and my tug encouraging a little independence in them, a little space for myself. 

These years, right now? I love them.* They are my mama payday: the wry observations and witty banter and deep conversations and giddy discoveries and big dreams and good question-y envelope pushing. I relish these times; I want to inhale those last "ambient gold shavings" of their growing years. It strikes me that, in some ways, the proximity equation has flipped for us as parents and children. It becomes our job (and our joy, usually) to seek them out: Where are you going? When will you be home?  Want to come down from your room and join the family for a while? (Of course this varies with each child and parent and there are many ways older kids and teens still seek proximity. But remember when the worst thing for a young child used to be time out, away from us? Now in adolescence typically the gravest punishment is grounding, having to stay close.)

Don't worry, I'm not in danger of embodying the semi-creepy I'll Love You Forever model of parenting (yes, it's a sweet children's book but does that part, when the mom climbs a ladder, creeps into the adult son's bedroom and rocks him at night, strike anyone else as a little odd?). It's just that both ingredients to healthy attachment and development need advocates: Team Proximity, Team Independence.  The occasional, necessary tug-and-pull tango still happens; we've just somehow, instinctively, switched directions along the way. I don't know when it happened but I sense we're dancing toward the door.

. . .

*Yes. I hear you. Though I completely love this stage, I will be the first to add that the issues and heartbreaks of this later, mid-stage mothering period are much more complex and less easily resolved than a midnight feeding or a sandwich cut on the diagonal

Gone to live with the bears

Sarah's post about having special time one-on-one with her kids this summer came to my mind today because, over the next couple of days, I am having a special kind of special time. The solo kind. I'm writing this from an empty house, just me. It's winter break here and Maddy is away at Model UN Nationals this week and the boys have taken themselves on a backpacking adventure for a few days.

And they're off...

And they're off...

I'm kind of a walking contradiction about it. I miss them. And I love it. 

As much as I love time with my family crew, I completely believe in the restorative power of a good solo retreat. I think it's in my genes. My great grandmother raised nine daughters over several decades in the 1920-50s and, as you can imagine, her life was full of laughter and noise and laundry and teaching. Every once in a while (about yearly, I think) she would declare "I'm going to live with the bears!" and she would pack up and leave her daughters in good care with a relative (or with each other as they grew older) and check in at the swanky Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City for a week. 

She took a whole suitcase full of magazines with her (yes, I really am her great granddaughter in so many ways). From her journal: it was "my therapy. I could get a room for five dollars, and I read and slept and shopped and renewed myself for the next year...I'd sleep late, then out for a hearty breakfast, then didn't need to eat until dinner." Only a few select friends were invited to visit or lunch or shop with her and no one else was allowed to contact her. At the end of her stay, she would return to the house, rejuvenated and restored and ready to go on mothering. She sent the message, loud enough so I still hear it a couple of generations later, that it's okay to take care of yourself, no matter who you are or what you do.

I know this about myself: I need to go live with the bears now and then. (I know it's time when I start envying prisoners in solitary confinement for their "away time.") This new iteration is even better: everyone else goes and lives with the bears and I get to stay in my own bed, amidst my own bookshelves. There may be a movie or two, long soaks in the tub, and some good stretches of writing time in my future. Thank you, Grandma B. I get it.

Have you ever taken a solo retreat? What would you do with a few days all to yourself? Does it feel too indulgent and guilt inducing? (If so, I'll happily write you a permission note!)