Mornings during a time of transition

Morning in the mouse house. Coffee in my favorite Ratio mug (thank you VJQ). Phoebe. Crossword. Matt is sleeping. Whit’s been gone all weekend. This is such a time of transition, hanging between what was and what will be. I guess it’s not a surprise I am feeling emotional and raw (Dr Thompson made me absolutely weep on Friday morning at BHS – high school graduation is the end of childhood). Whit is leaving and we are entering the empty nest. Grace is halfway through college. We are not in our house. I can look out the window from where I am sitting and see the house my parents lived in for 30 years and where Dad died. Blink, and everything changes. I think of last year’s holiday card message, which is still true: “Once again a time of change. Oh the change makes music.” Music and heartbreak. Beauty and loss. This is apparently the lesson I have to keep learning in this life. Can’t have one without the other. As Dad told Grace after John died (a month before he died): everything passes. The only thing to do is to reach out for the future with both arms, even if it hurts. What I’m learning to trust as I enter deep midlife is that I can let go of the past and it will still be there. I lived those years well. I paid attention. They’re always with me. Those small children, that younger me, that Dad, those moments – they exist in some way in this one. I’m just figuring out how. Onward. Both arms

Originally posted on instagram.

Thoughts on darkness

In a dark time, the eye begins to see. – Roethke

This is the darkest season.  Here in the northeast, we have two days until the shortest day of the year.  I love the photo above because I think it could be sunrise or sunset.  It’s the morning, though, day break from the air, a week and a half ago.

It’s fair to say that the contrast, interplay, and interrelation between light and dark is one of the central preoccupations of my life.  I’m fascinated by the way one allows the other, the way we need both to live in this world, the fact that light and dark are at once polar opposites and so closely related as to be two sides of the same coin.  When I search my archives for “light” I come up with 33 pages of results.

You might imagine that I have strong emotions about this particular time of the year, these week of deep darkness.

And you would be right.  I used to dread this time.  I can easily recall the physical sensation of gloom and fear that came over me as the days shortened.  And it’s true that in the spring, perhaps around February, I am buoyed when I begin to notice that the days are creeping longer.

But I don’t dread these dark days anymore.  I actually love them.  There’s something deeply reassuring to me about this season.  I’ve written extensively about my attachment to the solstice, and that is surely part of this comfort.  It isn’t hard for me to summon a roomful of candles, and to know how quickly they can dispel the darkness.

There is more going on, though.  I suspect it has something to do with the Roethke quote above, or with Wendell Berry’s lyrical lines which run through my head all the time:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.  To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

– Wendell Berry

Berry asserts that to really know the dark we have to surrender to it.  We have to let our eyes adjust, which means we must go in without any external light.  And that, in that darkness, there is a beauty that we never imagined.

It’s a short leap from thinking about the darkness out the window to the darkness inside myself.  I am still getting to know the darkness there, learning to gaze into the ragged hole that exists in the center of all of our souls, practicing pushing on the bruise and feeling the wound.  I have often described the feeling of that intense darkness as staring into the sun.  Again, light and dark are so close together as to be inextricable, sliding across each other, both occluding and showcasing as they do so.

Maybe that’s what this life is: an eclipse.

I read Margaret Renkl’s beautiful essay in the New York Times, Falling A Little Bit in Love with the Dark, today, with interest.  She too recognizes the gifts – threatened and rarer though they are- in darkness.  I haven’t thought through her point about how rare true darkness is, in a world in love with light (metaphorical and real).  My favorite line:

So I am teaching myself to rest in uncertainties, to revel in the secrets of darkness.

It has only been when I have really let myself lean into that darkness, accept that my deepest wound is the profound sadness of impermanence, that I’ve started seeing the gifts that are there.  As I sink into the way my life actually is, everyday I find unexpected gems buried in the mundane.  Sure, I also cry a lot more.  I grieve and mourn constantly, far more than I imagined possible.

But there’s also beauty here.  Surprising, staggering, serendipitous beauty.  Divinity buried in the drudgery.  Dark feet and dark wings.

Every year I feel more at ease in these dark days, protected, somehow.  I realize now that this is a manifestation of my increased comfort with my own darkness.  I have begun to see.

Always turning

I miss writing here.  A year has flown by, full of change and turmoil and so much love, too.  We are six days away from turning back to the light: some people find it surprising that I feel the winter solstice is a far more optimistic day than the summer solstice, but I do.  I’ve written at length of my family’s long-time love for and celebration of the solstice.  It’s Adrienne Rich’s words I feel most keenly at this time of year:

… we are moving towards the solstice, and there is still so much here I do not understand.

I have loved those words since I wrote my senior thesis in college on Adrienne Rich, and every year they continue to speak to me.  They say something a little different each year.  They always remind me of another quote (Adrienne Rich and Don Henley are funny paragraph-mates, I think every time) that I think of often:

… the more I know, the less I understand.

And yes.  I understand so little.  As I move deeper into midlife, there is so much of this world that I’ve seen, and still so much unseen.  I’ve always been fascinated by why certain words and memories rise in our minds when they do, and today the quotes and words that are surfacing are all about that we can see and that we can’t, about loving this world even when we don’t understand it, about how much surpasses our ability to fully grok (one of my favorite words) it.

The closing of each year offers a moment to reflect, and I think everyone should take it.  When I look at our lives, so much is the same as it was a year ago, but that belies the work and change that happened as well.  We are still in the same house, we are still a family of four with two much-loved grandmothers and a small tribe of nieces, nephews, brothers, and sisters.  We have the same two jobs, which we are fortunate to like (Matt) and to truly, deeply love (me).  And we are still, blessedly, healthy and safe.  And we are still reading about rising covid cases and unsure what the future holds.  That’s one constant, right: the uncertainty of tomorrow.  A parent’s sudden death will remind you of that, I can speak confidently here: nothing is promised.  Say what you want to say since who knows if you’ll have another chance.  Say I love you.  Hug.

And so much is different, too.  Whit drives now.  Grace graduated from high school and is in both college and the last year of her teens.  We have a dog that we all adore.  We almost moved to the suburbs in 2021 but decided ultimately to stay where we are and to renovate our small city home.  My mother moved out of the large home she and my father shared for 30 years to a smaller one-bedroom condo around the corner, which entailed a lot of pruning, cleaning, sorting, and giving away.  I’m so happy she made the move, but it was no small feat.  Hilary and I spent a lot of time together this spring, laughing a lot and crying a little as we unearthed memory upon memory.

As always, the border between light and dark fascinates me.  I have long been drawn to the edges of things, to the liminal.  I think it’s not an accident that I’m a mid-August baby, born right as summer quietly begins to turn to fall.  Next week, right at the moment of the deepest dark, we turn back to the light. I know better than to say 2022 is going to be “our year” or to really focus on any kind of specific hope (hope has always been troublesome to me as a concept, because it’s so quickly attached to a singular outcome, which can be so problematic).  What I want at the close of 2021 is to honor all the changes, transitions, and joys of this singular year, even as we acknowledge what the year lacked (much travel, seeing a lot of people, Dad).

Grace sent me a photo last week of something she’d seen in DC that said “this too shall pass.”  Said it reminded her of me.  And it reminds me of my father.  He always said that, and he was right.  The good and the bad.  It’s all transient, always changing, always turning.  Life itself.  All we can do is pay attention to the swirl around us.  And give thanks for the opportunity to be here.

Thank you.  Happy holidays. I hope to write more in 2022.


Endings and beginnings

This time of year is always bittersweet for me, never more than right now as Grace prepares to leave for college.  I took 11 boxes of LEGOs to their nursery school yesterday, and being in the building brought back such vivid memories.  It was – and is – a truly magical place where Grace and Whit were privileged to begin their school days.  I cannot say enough wonderful things about Cambridge Ellis School and we were lucky to be parents there for 5 years (3 for Grace, 2 for Whit).

Being there yesterday thrust me right into the whitewater of memory, where then and now collapsed, where the past feels animate, where I can’t believe how much time has passed.  This happens to me a lot, and this time of year particularly.  I’ve written about it before – about the word commencement, about how as the world flowers we wind down school years, about the paradox that’s contained in the word “commencement.”  We end and begin, at the same time.  When children – or ourselves – graduate, yes.  But also every day.  The words I wrote years ago, which all still resonate, are below.

Perhaps I’m particularly oriented this way right now because of having spent weeks helping Mum pack up from the house she and my father shared for 30 years.  Walking into that house is like walking into the past and I’ve spent almost a month marinating in those memories, in old photos, laughing and crying.  Photo above is one I had never seen but I found in the last few weeks.  There’s an undeniable ending as Mum sells the house, but a beginning too: her new life, hopefully less encumbered, more comfortable, ready to move forward.  I’m happy for her.

Four years ago, both of our children graduated on the same day.  From 6th and 8th grade respectively, from the school where they had both started as 4 year olds.  All four of our parents were there.  It was an emotional day, one of farewell and celebration.  I can’t help but remember it now, as we careen towards Grace’s graduation from high school (which, thankfully, we can attend in person!).  Yesterday and a lifetime ago.  As all experiences in life seem to feel.  As I get older, the weight of memory is heavier, which is a blessing – so much joy – and a challenge – so many things to mourn – at the same time.

Endings and beginnings.  Here we go.


Years ago I described the fleeting nature of time as the black hole around which my whole life circles, the wound that is at the center of all my writing, all my feeling, all my living.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by what it is I writeover and over again.  At the very midpoint of the year, the sunniest, longest days, I find myself battling an encroaching sorrow, an irrefutable sense of farewell.  The proof is in my archives.

The world bursts into riotous bloom, almost as though it is showing off its fecundity.  The days are swollen and beautiful, the air soft, the flowering trees spectacular.  The children gleefully wear shorts to school, the sidewalks are dusted with pollen and petals, and we round the curve of another year.  We start counting down school days, we say goodbye to beloved babysitters who are graduating from college, and I find myself blinking back tears.

Every year, I’m pulled into the whitewater between beginnings and endings that defines this season.  I can barely breathe.

It’s all captured in the event that so many of us attend, year after year, at this time: commencement.  It was my own commencements that marked this season, for years: from grade school, high school, college, graduate school.  And then there was a time when, though I wasn’t personally attending commencements, I felt their presence, sensed the ebb and flow of the school year.  It seems that my spirit and the very blood in my veins will always throb to the cadence of the school year.  And now it is my children who commence, who close a year and begin another, wearing too-long hair and legs, vaguely tentative smiles, and white.

Commencement.  Isn’t this word simply a more elegant way of describing what might be the central preoccupation of my life?  You end and you begin, on the very same day.  You let go of something and while that I-am-falling feeling never goes away, you trust that you’ll land.  And you do, on the doorstep of another beginning, a new phase, the next thing.

No matter how many times I’m caught from the freefall of farewell by a new beginning, though, I still feel the loss.  As much as my head understands that endings are required for them to be beginnings, my heart mourns what is ending.  That a seam of sorrow runs through my every experience is undeniable; it may sound depressing, but I genuinely don’t experience it that way.  It is just part of how I’m wired, and it’s never closer to the surface than right now, as this school year winds down, as we celebrate the beginning that’s wrapped in the end, as we commence.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder.

So much is changing.  Big and small.  Grace is getting ready to go to college.  Mum is moving out of the house she and Dad lived in for 30 years.  Whit is going to have his driver’s license soon.  We are thinking of moving a few towns over.  Matt and I are hanging on, holding hands as we navigate these transitions.  And I am so, so grateful for that hand-holding, much as I sometimes demonstrate irritation more than thankfulness.

A few things have spoken to me lately, amid the swirl of life right now.

Old photos of Dad as we unclutter at Mum’s.  In the photo above I feel like I’m looking at Whit.  I never saw it before!

So many wonderful old photos of Hilary and me as children, often with Mum and Dad.  I’m sharing them from time to time on Instagram, and one of my favorites is below.

Thank God for the Poets – Margaret Renkl’s beautiful op-ed in the New York Times made me both cry and feel like singing.  Her book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, is among my favorites of recent years.  This piece, like a few others before it, was sent to me by no fewer than 10 different people in my life, which made me so glad.  It’s like when people send me photos of the sunsets from where they are.  Small gestures like that make me feel both seen and connected, part of the grand human experiment, the pageant of this life.

Which is so full of both suffering and glory, of loss and love.  I wrote a text to a few friends recently that parenting was one long series of goodbyes, suffused with love.  And it is.  I think always of my friend Elizabeth’s annual Christmas card tag line: “an endless alleluia.”

Life is.  Now. Then. Always.  How lucky we are.