I’ve started this blog post three times. Each time, Amelia, one of my three dogs, shoves her nose under my elbow and nudges my arm, asking for attention. Each time, my fingers lose their space on the keyboard; I backspace and start over. One of those times, my puppy, Rose, joins in, but in her poor “puppy” form, she makes the mistake of grabbing my hand in her mouth (albeit gently), resulting in a reprimand.
They give up, bored, and curl up on their beds across the room. I’m granted a moment to myself, and I keep typing.
This week, I forgot two loads of laundry in my washer…for four days. The chicken coop needs to be cleaned. My dogs have smelled “wet” for longer than I care to remember…because everything outside has been wet for over a week. Hay nets need to be filled tomorrow. I cannot keep the floor clean of paw prints. I have piles of grading to work through. And, just for shits and giggles, one of my horses injured himself on Friday, resulting in a day off of work waiting on the emergency vet.
I’d say things are crazy right now, but in my experience, this is sort of just how life works. You get behind; you catch up. You get your shit together; something unexpected happens. I guess that means that crazy is normal…or normal is crazy? Or there is no such thing as normal at all?
I’ve read books about having “balance” in life. It’s such a fantastic idea: this juggling of priorities and responsibilities so that you’re always on top of things. The ringmaster of your life.
But has anyone else noticed that the idea of “balance” usually comes hand-in-hand with an undue number of circus metaphors? Anyone else think that’s maybe because it’s an idea that is playing at a fantasy?
My life feels like a circus sometimes, but not a well-managed, three ring circus… a shady roadside circus. The animals aren’t behaving; the fire is getting a little too close to the tent, and the clowns don’t all fit in the car…and who the fuck let all of those creepy clowns in here anyway?
Sometimes though, my life feels maybe a bit more like a petting zoo. The creatures are running things. I am getting low on hay, and I need to clean the stalls. And someone left a gate open. Actually, that one isn’t a so much a metaphor…
In the past week, three of my friends have told me about their respective circuses. Their lack of balance. Their feelings of guilt and shame for not being the perfect ringmaster. They worry that they aren’t “enough”: enough parent, enough partner, enough employee, enough friend. One felt guilty that her time at the gym took time away from her kids. One felt like time for herself took excessive time from her relationship. One felt that her time at work wasn’t enough, that she should be spending time outside of office hours attending work functions. One of my friends even voiced concern that she “didn’t bake enough and that she probably should.”
I listened to each of them, and I said all of the right, true things. “You can’t take care of anyone or anything else if you don’t take care of yourself.” “You are being too hard on yourself.” “You are doing great.” These are things I have to tell myself ALL THE TIME, so I’m getting good at saying them. One day, I might even get good at hearing them.
Over the last few years, I’ve added a mantra to my ever-lengthening list of mantras. I’m beginning to think that it might be the secret to life: “The stalls won’t always be clean…and that’s ok.”
Maybe you have stalls (in which case it works on two levels) or maybe you don’t. But what I mean is this: things will never be perfect, and the list of things to do will never be completely done. Try as you might, you’re never going to get all of your figurative (or literal) shit cleaned up. And things are probably going to be fine anyway.
I should have graded papers on Sunday, but I went to spend time with a friend and her kids instead. We made cookie bars. I let her eight year old crack the egg for the batter. We sat on the floor eating warm cookie bars with chocolate ice cream while that same eight year old serenaded us with “Fight Song,” and her mama and I sipped limoncello-spiked, mango-lemonade. I wasted time…balance and priorities and juggling be damned. I laughed. I smiled. I gave myself a break and accepted that some papers were going ungraded for now…oh, and I didn’t clean my stalls up, either.
It was good enough. I was good enough.
Embrace the circus, honey. We all have one, and those clowns aren’t listening to anyone.
I read a book once that pointed out that life tends to divide itself into befores and afters.
It’s true, when you think about it. Some are obvious milestones: Before high school. After high school. Before college. After college. Before and after your first job. Births. Deaths. We, all of us, all our lives, are just a mess of befores and afters and how they changed us from one version of ourselves to the next. We have ceremonies to celebrate or mourn the changes. Matriculation. Funerals. Christenings.
Sometimes, even though one day you’re a person of before and the next day a person of after, it feels like little has changed. Some befores and afters fade into one another like the colors of the sunset meld from one to the next, and suddenly the sky has gone from blue to orange to purple without you noticing. The easy changes are like that. You don’t realize things are changing until they have, and then, before you know it, you’ve made your way from a before to an after.
Other changes fall like a sledgehammer. No matter the slope into it, no matter the warning or preparation, the change will always be abrupt.
Hopefully followed by rebirth.
For me, 2017 was a sledgehammer year.
2017 felt like falling off the edge of the world. Tumbling into the unknown with no way of catching myself and hoping against hope that I would manage to find some yet unknown footing. And it wasn’t just the divorce, though that was a large part of it. It was losing all faith in the person who I used to consider my best friend. Honestly, before I found out about his affair, if I had been asked whether I had more faith in him, or in the sun’s rising in the east and setting in the west, I would have, without a moment’s hesitation, said him. But after? I felt worthless, thrown away by the person who had promised to love me no matter what.
When my marriage fell away, I realized that I had defined myself by my relationship and that I didn’t entirely remember who I was outside of it. And I was so numb that, for quite a while, I couldn’t figure out what to do to fix that.
2017 was a lost and found year.
When my life fell to pieces, I really thought that I was destined to live a half-life. I couldn’t imagine my world without my ex. I couldn’t imagine being happy again. I know that it sounds crazy, but for a long while there, it seemed like joy was a thing of my past.
I lost who I had been. I lost who he and I had been together. I lost the person I had depended upon the most.
But then, hidden in the wreckage of my life, cowering and lost, I found myself again.
I was surprised to learn that you can always find your way back to you.
2017 was my year of Women Reading Aloud. (Yes, Julie, I’m talking about you.)
The series of events that brought me to the South of France this August, sitting in a room full of lovely, beautiful, talented writers, is complex and uncanny. It was almost an accident. It was almost intentional. I almost didn’t go, feeling almost too heartbroken to function. But, somehow, the universe brought me to a little retreat, near a little town, that I almost couldn’t find on a map. Weirdly, I started to find pieces of myself in a place that I had never been with people who I had never met.
After that, I started to find pieces of myself all over. My friends and family helped remind me of who I had always been. My creatures reminded me of what I had always done. My half-life grew, and it was as though those people and places and creatures dearest to me had been holding pieces of me for safe-keeping: pieces I had forgotten about. Pieces that they handed back once I was ready to begin putting myself back together.
The thing about befores and afters is that they never really leave you. Rather, they change you. If you let them, they can change you for the better, even as you mourn what you lost.
I was recently sent a message by an old college friend who reached out to me, asking what she could do to help someone who had recently discovered their spouse was having an affair. My heart broke for this person, who I had never met, because I know what it is to renegotiate yourself through that sort of brokenness. I gave her some advice. A list of books that had I found helpful.
And I started thinking, not for the first time, about all the people who find themselves living in an after they never expected.
If that’s where you are right now, negotiating an heart-wrenching after, you’re not alone. You’re growing. And you’re changing. And you’re probably breaking into a thousand pieces. But you’re not alone.
You’ll change. You’ll grow. You find yourself all over again. And you put the pieces back, maybe a little differently.
All of this to say, you’ve got this. I believe in you. Go live your after
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
It’s still warm enough for crickets to chirp their song at the end of the day, but only just. Our fall colors are still flirting with the green of summer. Fall happens slowly here. You almost miss it, sandwiched between our Midwestern summers and winters which compete every year to be fiercer than the other. Fall is quiet. Unlike the famous colors out east, our colors don’t come all at once. We entertain shades of gold and green and red in the same moment. Oranges like pumpkins. Scarlet like the lips of emboldened women. Yellow leaves reminiscent of gold jewelry worn to be noticed and envied. All of this beside the slow trees that cling to their chlorophyll, still green into November. Even lovelier for their slow and steady, almost cautious, pace.
I walked out to the barn this evening wearing a sweatshirt and jeans; it’s not cold enough to break out my winter things yet, but if I know anything about time and seasons and the Midwest and ranch work, I know that those coats and hats and gloves aren’t as far away as they seem right now. Acorns crunched under each step; in no time their crunch will be replaced by the crunch of snow underfoot.
The barn was quiet. Most of the animals, especially the llamas, were out in their fields enjoying the green grass. I walked down the barn aisle attending to those who required a special dinner. The quiet of my evening interrupted by the occasional impatient whinny or llama hum.
Twice a day, everyday, this is my world. Llamas. Alpacas. Horses. Chickens. Silly little ponies. A random pet turkey hen who doesn’t really like me all that much. It comes complete with all the dust, and manure, and work I can manage…plus just enough more to remind me that the work will never, ever actually be done. It is overwhelming sometimes. Exhausting sometimes. Heartbreaking sometimes.
It is also beautiful in ways I still struggle to put to words.
I walked down the lane farther and dislodged a hay bale from my stack. Hooves pounded the ground, and my horses called to me as I carried a bale out into the field. Some trotted. A few cantered. One sprung into a mad gallop that ended in bucks of pure joy. I watched and listened. I will never tire of the sound of hoof beats. Watching my horses gallop in for dinner will never get old.
But I don’t always watch or listen.
I try to practice mindfulness in my life: taking the time to center myself to my breath, notice what is going on around me, and live in the moment.
I have to be honest, I’m really bad at it most of the time.
I’m a very cerebral person in general, and it’s hard for me to let go of what’s going on in my head long enough to notice what’s going on in front of me. When I finally take a moment to slow down and notice the world around me, I am most often struck by what I miss out on everyday.
Tonight could have passed that way, like so many others. But for some reason, instead of quickly tossing hay and leaving my horses to their dinner, I walked around checking in with each of them. I kissed Phoenix on the nose. I scratched Morana’s neck. I said hello to each horse. Then, impulsively when he came up to me and seemed to offer it, I climbed on Jiminy Cricket’s back.
It’s been a while since I climbed on a horse bareback.
I had no intention of asking him for anything. This wasn’t going to be a battle of wills; I wasn’t a rider, just a passenger. He had complete say over where we went. How fast we traveled. He wasn’t bothered, settling in quietly to eat hay with his pet monkey on his back.
I sat there while the sun set. The oak leaves ruffled gently in the breeze and the light glittered between them. The sunlight played in a way that made me understand why the ancients believed in faeries.
Jiminy felt warm and powerful and gentle beneath me. He took a deep breath in response to my own, and we settled into this moment in the fall, the light like golden glitter between the leaves, and the sweet smell of hay.
I slid off his back as the light I had been watching began to dim. The horses watched me leave, and I walked back to the house hearing the crunch of acorns.
And I thought about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet who once wrote that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.” Most of the time, we miss it, but sometimes? Sometimes we see the fire. We recognize the holy. We sit in the sacred, and we remember, though we will probably soon forget again, that the sacred is always within reach.
I pulled the red and white notice off the door of my Heights house with a sigh. We would be fined within days if the lawn continued un-mowed, if the landscaping wasn’t trimmed back. Jeremiah and I (mostly Jeremiah) had been in a slow war with the code enforcement officer in the Heights most of the time that we lived there. Our fence was the first infraction–built on a corner lot and requiring signatures of all the neighbors and a hearing at city hall to build–but from then on the inspector took every opportunity to cite us, and Jeremiah took every opportunity to provoke him. We learned after the fence incident that bribes were the usual way of dealing with his red and white citations, and it seemed that forcing the issue with the city had been something of an embarrassment to him when all the council members immediately approved our “beautiful fence.”
But this time? Honestly, I could see his point.
I was at the Heights house to meet with our carpet installer for a quote. Getting that house on the market, so that I can stop carrying bills for two homes and re-appropriate some of my capital from the Heights into the farm, has been a long, slow, goal. Earlier this year, I hired my contractor to put on a new roof and finish the drywall in our new addition; just a month or so ago I bought all new light fixtures and paint. But it’s not quite there yet.
Oh – and I would love to make the lawn someone else’s problem.
Since we moved across the river, the lawn at the Heights has alternately been the problem of my dad, my former brother-in-law (who I still totally consider family…actually, I’m keeping all of Jeremiah’s family), and Jeremiah (occasionally…when he’s in town). This time? My dad offered to help me pick up the slack, once again, and that’s how we found ourselves taming back the jungle that was my former house’s lawn just before dusk.
I drove over to meet him with a weed whacker, hedge trimmers, and a potato fork in my truck, ready to whack, trim, or dig as necessary. When I pulled up, he was nearly finished mowing the yard.
My Heights house sits on a lot and a half in one of the nicer working class neighborhoods across the river. It was built nearly a hundred years ago, when houses were smaller and ceilings were taller. Nothing is perfectly square, the floors are, at best, levelish, and nearly every corner of the not quite 800 square feet (from one of our foundation walls to two staircases) made a valiant attempt to fall in on us while we lived there.
And it was completely perfect, and I couldn’t have loved it more.
It’s five minutes from anything you could possibly need. Sidewalks make it pedestrian (and pup) friendly; the posh boutique restaurants and shops uptown are a relatively easy walk if you’re in the mood. Our favorite pizza place was just up the block. Starbucks was just around the corner.
It’s the sort of neighborhood where neighbors know each other’s names and say hello. When my Amelia was a puppy, she made a habit of slipping the fence, running across the street to our favorite neighbors’ house, and waiting on the porch until Wade saw her, gave her pets, and walked her back home. It was a ritual for both of them for a few weeks, nearly every morning, until we figured out where she was escaping. He never complained once.
There’s a lot that I miss about that place.
I miss the front porch with its steps that I lined with flowers. The landscaping that we scrapped together from free splits, plant sales, and the occasional splurge.
I miss the sidewalks. I miss the neighborhood cats who used to come visit while we sat on the porch and drank wine in the evening under twinkle lights. I miss the people who would wave hello as I sat on the same porch drinking coffee and grading English papers.
I miss the utterly ingenious squirrels.
Mostly though, I miss the feeling of “knowing” what direction my life was heading. I miss the security I felt there with my cozy little house and almost blissfully happy marriage. I was sure of myself when I lived there in a way that I haven’t been able to reclaim since.
Nostalgia rolled over me as I pulled climbing weeds from the stems of the hydrangea plants that I worked for years to establish. They bloomed this year without my noticing; I only rarely drive by. The gardens that we had tended so exactly for years were overgrown and wild, a reminder that nature will reclaim whatever it feels it is due, even in town, even with a Starbucks just around the corner.
I bit back tears once or twice, not for the house exactly, but for the losses that my mind had folded into those walls, and that yard, and those pretty little hydrangeas.
When Dad and I finished up, we sat on the porch for a bit. The evening was cool, and the front porch was still perfect. One of the neighborhood cats, Bennie by his tag, sat with us and enjoyed pets.
“Things were good here…” I said to my dad, or maybe to myself, or maybe to no one in particular.
“Before the shit hit the fan,” he replied.
Yes, I thought. Before all of the shit hit all of the fans.
Once upon a time, in what feels like another life, I used to teach English 101 to Freshman at the local four year college. I had two additional goals for my students beyond what was specifically in the 101 instructor handbook: first, that they actually understand the rules for commas by the time they leave my class, and second, that they have a basic grasp of logic and logical fallacies. I won’t turn this post into a lesson on commas–suffice it to say there really are only four comma rules, and they aren’t that hard–but I was reminded of my logical fallacy lessons as I sat on the steps.
Memories are remarkably unreliable, mostly because they were never designed for perfect playback as much as they were designed to help us adapt and survive. The memories that we keep for some time tend to be remembered as mostly positive or negative, while our current situations can be seen with more objectivity: the positive and negative weighed against each other. (Also, we tend to remember our best days, and our worst, but the “mostly ok” days that make up most of our lives slip through our mental lockers like water through a sieve.) Most of us have times in our lives that we remember with proverbial “rose-tinted glasses.” For me, my time in that little house comes across almost glowing.
Ah, but here’s the rub: if you’re willing to really think about those times, it becomes clear fairly quickly that things weren’t perfect and idyllic. That may make for a better story or a good memory, but it’s seldom the way our lives are actually lived.
I don’t miss the city noises, or the headlights that would shine through my bedroom window as people drove down the street in the middle of the night. I don’t miss the code enforcement guy monitoring my lawn, or the overzealous animal control in the county. I really don’t miss the fact that most of town used the weeks from the middle of June through the end of July as an excuse to set off fireworks at all hours.
I miss some of my neighbors, but I couldn’t wait to leave a few of them behind me.
I miss the convenience of being right in town, but I wouldn’t trade my farm lane for all the tea in China (or, you know, something I would realistically have more use and desire for than all of the Chinese tea…)
I would give almost anything to move my front porch across the river and park it squarely in front of this big, old ranch house, but there are limits to what you can actually take with you when you leave a place. So, instead of the porch, I’ll take the memories of the summer nights, and the twinkle lights, and the wine. I’ll hope that the next owners love the little house as much as we did, that their good memories will outweigh the bad, and that love will live there for a long time to come. Maybe I’ll even hope that their memories there show through rose-tinted glasses.
I’m mostly ok with it.
I walked around the little gardens and made a mental note of the clean-up yet to be done. Hopefully, those flower boxes that Jeremiah so painstakingly built for me will belong to someone else before long, but in the meantime, I believe I can afford to give them just a little more time and attention.
Before leaving, I chose a handful of overgrown plants to split and replant in my butterfly garden in front of the ranch house. We dug them up without much ceremony and loaded them into my truck alongside the tools I brought.
It was nearly dark by the time I made it home and began digging holes in the soft earth of my butterfly garden, the clayish soil mingling with llama manure compost, clinging to my hands and sticking underneath my fingernails. I listened to the nighttime things wake up around me. The owls. The crickets. The toads.
No sign of the city except for the tiny bit of light pollution that glows from the west.
Things will never be the same as they were during those years in my little house. I may never quite reclaim those same feelings of security, but that loss made space for other good things that I couldn’t have imagined then.
I sunk the roots of my plants into the space I made them, and I watered them almost to flooded, knowing that the next day would be hot, and that they would need a lot of care to establish themselves. They didn’t have the space they really needed in the little garden boxes, but in the butterfly garden, if they could make it past the trauma of the move to establish their roots, they would have plenty of room to grow.
She thinks she’s bragging, but the little girl, or teen, or grown-ass woman (or perhaps man) who utters those words in the horseback riding world has failed to read the room. We are not impressed. In fact, the polite among us are trying not to laugh in her face. She looks with at the other riders with expectation, all of us with muck on our boots, sweat under our helmets and horsehair on our jeans. We, she implies, have fallen, and she has not; therefore, obviously, her skills are greater. We should accept the inevitable conclusion that she is the superior rider.
It’s almost cute, really…
But we know something she doesn’t. We know there are only two types of horseback riders: Those who have fallen off, and those who will. Continue reading “Falling”→