Captive on a carousel of time

Celebrated my 26th (belated 25th) reunion from college last weekend.  How is that possible?  We just graduated. Above is my favorite photo of hundreds from the weekend.  Arms around each other.  Walking away. The woman on my left is my roommate and was one of our bridesmaids.  The woman on my right is Whit’s godmother.  How lucky I am to still count as dear the women I met in the fall of 1992.

Saw a Harvard grad walking by our house this morning in cap and gown, on her way to commencement.

It reminded me of all the years I wrote about commencement, about this bittersweet season of endings and beginnings.  I wrote this in 2017, when both children graduated from the school they’d been at since pre-K.  They both left that year.  I remember sitting with all four grandparents in two different gyms for both kids on the same day.  Four months later both of our dad would be gone.  The breathtaking impact of the fall of 2017 is still sinking in.

But today I’m thinking of endings and beginnings, of how we say goodbye to years as the world bursts into bloom, of how my soul still functions on the school year calendar.  Grace is home from college, Whit has one more week, and then it’s summer.  Time is flying faster and faster, which is both the world’s tritest cliche and its deepest truth.

*** also, I am aware of what a huge privilege it is to write these words and to mourn time’s passage with my healthy, living children.***

Words from 2017 and 2013, still true now:

Tomorrow, both children graduate – Whit from sixth grade and Grace from eighth.  At the school they’ve both been at since they were four, sixth grade and eighth grade are inflection points (the other is twelfth grade), so they each have graduation ceremonies.  As you can probably imagine, I’m perpetually in tears these days and expecting an emotional day tomorrow.  I did my last pickup at the gym. I packed the last lunch of my career as a mother. Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  The lasts are coming thick and fast right now, and I’ll be honest, I’m trying to catch my breath and keep my balance.

This time of year always feels this way to me, limned with endings and loss despite its perch at the moment that my favorite season, summer, bursts into reality.  I have written a lot about how this season of ends and beginnings feels for me.  This year the complicated emotions are stronger than ever, with both children moving on (and in particular with Grace leaving for boarding school).

There’s something about the word, commencement, that captures all the conflicting emotions that are bound up in this moment. This moment every year, but perhaps, most of all, this moment in my life right now.  Grace and Whit are, as I’ve written before, taking flight.  I’m so proud I ache, but I’m also keenly aware of something big coming to an end.

So much radiance.  So much sorrow.  Inextricably wound together, twisted through every hour. Tomorrow, we commence.  Onto the next thing, into the onrush of time, keenly aware of all that’s glorious and all that’s lost, always, at the same time.

***

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.

 

Much is Taken, Much Abides

I wrote a piece a while ago that I shared on Medium last week.  It’s probably pretty redundant for anyone who has been reading here – about Dad, poetry, Tennyson, Whit, loss, memory.  One of the reasons I go back and forth on continuing to write here is this sense that I’ve become a totally boring, repetitive writer.  Still, it’s a piece that means a huge amount to me, so I’m proud to see it up.  You can read the piece here, and the first part of it is below.  To add color to the particularly complicated and rigorous last year, Liz, who read at Dad’s funeral (one of two non-family members to do so) recently died herself.  I will attend her funeral next weekend.  Losses everywhere.  Much is taken.  Much abides.

***

 

Annus mirabilis

I’ve had the expression “annus mirabilis” running through my head lately and finally I turned to Google to discover its actual full meaning.  Many people have called 2017 an “annus horribilis” for our family and in some ways it definitely was.  But in fact “annus mirabilis” feels more accurate to me.

An annus mirabilis is “a Latin phrase that means “wonderful year”, “miraculous year” or “amazing year”. This term was originally used to refer to the year 1666, and today is used to refer to several years during which events of major importance are remembered.”

And you know what?  2017 definitely wasn’t wonderful, but it was amazing, in the I-was-amazed meaning of the word.  In the meaning that I read in Jeanne McCulloch’s All Happy Families: “Amazed: to fill with wonder.  Also: to bewilder.”  Our entire lives changed in 2017.  The year was full of wonder and bewilderment, in equal measure, I think.  The changes can be captured in twos:

Two new schools
Two new jobs
Two fathers (and grandfathers) gone

One of those new schools was a boarding school, so our family life took on a new shape.  One of those new jobs was a company that I helped to found, which has been an incredibly marvelous experience (and I’m so grateful that both Dad and John knew of that founding before they died).

Events of major importance?  No question.  2018 has been a year of fewer changes but no less emotion, which surprised me, truthfully. But when I step back and think about it, I guess it makes sense that there would be some settling in, some aftershocks, and so I think that’s what has been going on. The degree of both wonder and bewilderment that 2017 held were never going to resolve themselves neatly overnight when we stepped into 2018, a transition I recall as being fraught with emotion, even as it feels like a decade ago.

I am trying to give myself space and gentleness as I acknowledge that our annus mirabilis is taking longer to process than I anticipated.  Intellectually that makes sense.  Emotionally I want to be “me” again.  But even as I write that, I realize the futility of that wish: the me that began 2017 is gone, and I’m forever changed by the events of that year.  Wonder and bewilderment.  Annus mirabilis.  All these words resonate somewhere deep inside me, and I grab onto each.  But on some level I still feel lost in an inchoate place.

But I can’t stop thinking of annus mirabilis.  Maybe that’s my book.  It’s certainly where I am right now, and at least for a while still to come, I imagine.

How We Thought It Would Be

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that much of our suffering in this life is due to our attachment to how we thought it was going to be.  Put another way, I believe that one of the tasks of our lives is letting go of how we thought it would be.  What did you think, that isn’t so?  I’ll go first.

I thought my father would live to be in his nineties

I thought my daughter would go to my alma mater for high school

I thought I’d have published a book or two by now

I could keep going.  For a long time.  That’s not really news to me. What’s news is that when I think about it, I realize that I don’t dwell on these things.  Well, maybe my dad.  That one I still rue daily.  But maybe I’m growing into maturity, because at this point I can recognize these truths I thought would describe my life without pain.   How did that happen?  I’m not sure.  I wish I could pinpoint when the “what…ifs” stopped, but I can’t.  I do know that it’s releasing them that’s allowed a whole-hearted embrace of the reality of my life.

By letting go of our attachment to what might have been, we can embrace what is.  I know that is true. There’s no question that there’s a list equally as long as the things I thought would be true, and that’s the list of things that I didn’t expect.  Some of those surprises have been pleasant, some dazzling, and some heartbreaking.  But they represent the reality of life right now, and there’s room for them because of all the things that aren’t as I hoped, planned, or imagined.  So the task, I’m quite sure, is to let go of the latter so that we might let in the former. It feels like this is all going to happen anyway – what isn’t as we thought it would be isn’t, and what is, is – so the only question is how gracefully we can allow these things to be.

Easier said than done, but I seem to be moving in that direction.  Maybe the letting go comes with circumstances out of my control showing me how little the fretting and holding on helps me.  Maybe it’s just an inevitable development with middle age.  I don’t know.  I’m pretty sure it’s nothing I’ve done, and no comment on me in particular.  But I’m grateful for it.

What did you think would be, that isn’t?   And do you have any lessons about letting go of those things?

Memories and ghosts

I’m heading down to spend the 4th of July holiday with my children and husband, my mother, and my sister and her family, as we do every year.  We crowd into the house, which has at least one too few bathrooms for all of us.  We watch and cheer at the town’s old-fashioned parade.  We line the kids up for group photos, which used to feature at least one person crying and now feature at least one person being a little surly.  I used to dress the children in matching 4th of July pajamas, but that’s no longer happening.

This year there’s an echoing hole in the center of our experience.

We spent last weekend at Mum and Dad’s rambling house by the ocean, where we’ve spent so very many weekends.  I have been expecting the summer to be full of landmines and memories, and last weekend that proved true.  His absence colors everything in that house.  Sure, his absence colors my experience in general, but it is never more true than in that house.

That house where I brought Matt to meet my parents for the first time, a month after we met, in January 1998.  He and Dad were reading the same book (let me assure you it wasn’t an airport New York Times bestseller – rather a textbook-style book, about two inches thick, about the history of Europe).  After that weekend, Dad said to me, “Well, if he had only lived in Europe for a stint, I think he’d be perfect.”  To which I replied, “Did Matt not tell you about the two years he lived in London before business school?”

That house where Dad glanced at me as I walked downstairs in my wedding dress and turned back to the US Open.  Sampras was in a fifth set!  “Dad,” I remember saying with a sign, “We do have to go.”  To his credit, he turned the TV off then.

That house where Mum and Dad hosted Thanksgiving for over 30 people for more than two decades.  Where Matt and I pulled up, with a sleeping Grace in her carseat in the backset, on Thanksgiving morning 2002.  I have intense, vivid memories of that drive, arriving in front of Mum and Dad’s house, leaning against the headrest of the car, looking into the front windows through which I could see Dad in his bowtie.  Matt’s father was still in a coma after his heart transplant.  I was deep in the weeds of post partum depression.  The rest of the day is a blur, but I do recall with crystalline detail looking through the windows from our navy blue car as we parked.

That house where Grace and Whit lived with Mum and Dad for several summers, growing into themselves, developing their own relationships with their grandparents, learning to sail and playing tennis.  Where Dad and Whit took the boat out alone, where Dad and Grace went out to dinner alone, where we spent more nights around the dinner table than I can count.  Where for many years, Mum blew out birthday candles with all four of her grandchildren as Dad looked on from the other end of the table.

That house where, very often on a weekend morning, Dad and I were the first people up.  I’d bring him a cup of black coffee and he’d glance up and say, “well, thank you!” before turning back to his book.  I sat in the other room, reading, and could feel the pulse of him in his red leather chair.  The same red leather chair where he held Grace and Whit as infants, and where he later read to them.

That house where I had my last conversation with my father.  That house where I talked to him, hugged him, and saw him for the last time.  It was another Thanksgiving with over 30 people there, including this year’s foreign student (my sister and I have long maintained that it is the presence of someone we’ve never met before is what makes a Thanksgiving truly real). That house from which we went for our usual after-dinner walk on Thanksgiving, which wound home through the boatyard, Dad and I walking in silence among the boats, up on stilts for the winter.

That house where we gathered for Dad’s funeral. Where a few special family and friends gathered the night before to have dinner, solemn and laughing at the same time, where memory swelled into a present, tangible thing.  Where Matt and I retraced that same walk, the one we always do, early on the morning of the service.  Where Tennyson ran through my head, as he often does.  Where the old sailing friend of Dad’s quoted the same lines from Ulysses as he struck the canon as the crowd gathered for ceremonious colors in Dad’s honor.

And tomorrow, back I go to the same house, for the week with everyone together.  It will be the same in many ways and of course wildly, terrifyingly different in one enormous one.  All we can do is hold onto each other and proceed. Red and blue and white.  Fireworks and memories.  Ghosts around every corner, as well as memories of laughter and joy.  It’s still Mum’s birthday.  We are still together.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides.