Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sometimes you're the yin and sometimes you're the yang

Have you had one of those phases where you're not sure what triggered it or if it was even something specific, but you find yourself in a funk and the climb back out is so intimidating that after a while, you just turn on robot mode and muddle through for a while? 



Well, I have. And even though I'm back up here on dry land, it always feels like if I took a single step backward, I'd fall right back into the abyss. 

Frankly, there are plenty of abyss-worthy things that have happened this year. Chief among them is the loss of Kurt's amazing grandma, Nancy, in August. I'm still in that part where I can't really even think about her without crying big, hot tears. Because she was amazing, you guys. I can't explain how fortunate I feel to have wound up being able to count myself as one of her grandchildren-by-proxy (although any time she introduced me she just called me her granddaughter). She was in her 80s, but it was still unexpected and sudden. We miss her so very, very much. The kids talk about her almost every day. She's given them so many little things from the house she lived in with Kurt's grandpa most of her life. I see her in every single room of my house.

I could go on for so long about Nancy. But I'll keep it short. Think of the kindest person you can think of, and then add a big dash of clever wit and a boatload of patience. She was quick to smile and quicker to hug. She was really proud of her Swedish heritage, and over the moon when we named Anderson after her maiden name. Every Christmas Eve, she would serve a big Swedish meal with potato sausage, carrot pudding and limpa bread and her extended family would gather around and complain in that teasing, loving way that really great families often do. It was absolutely expected, though. It's not Christmas without that meal. I'd been planning to introduce this tradition to our Cincinnati family this year, before she died, and I think we'll still try, though it will be difficult. 

So, my heart has been bruised for a while. And now one of my uncles has died, just this past weekend. He'd dealt with a lifetime of Big Issues and walked a very, very difficult path. I hadn't see him in years, and usually I haven't even been aware of where he was (or if he was). He was a big-hearted, gentle soul, at any rate, and my heart hurts for him, my grandma and his remaining siblings. It's a really difficult thing. We'll go to the funeral on Friday and I'm sure it will be tough.

On the flip side, though, I also became an aunt in August! In fact, we were on the way to Michigan to attend Nancy's funeral when my niece was born. And she is quite the antidote to all this heartache. She is such a sweet baby, and we are lucky enough to get to help take care of her during the week. She brightens our days so much. I don't know if it's full circle, or the yin and the yang or just... you know, life. But it's good. I'm so excited that my kids have a cousin, and it's so funny to call my husband an uncle. And my brother is a really good dad! And his wife is a fantastic mom! It's all kind of surreal, but in a really, really good way.

And a million other things. Loss and love and trucking along, as we do. Some moments cast a long shadow, but where there is shadow, there must also be light. That almost sounds Biblical. Did I steal that from the Bible? That seems especially in bad taste.

I have no clever or hilarious anecdotes to fill up the page here. I just wanted to throw out a "I'm still here" message. Because I am. And so are you, and aren't we so lucky?

Friday, August 7, 2015

My boy and the moonlight (and astronaut pee) (and mortality)

 Blue moon over Arlington, VA. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky) (Public Domain Image)
Blue moon over Arlington, VA. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky) (Public Domain Image)

It's a cool night, summer slipping away and new challenges on the horizon, and I'm looking at the moon with one of my boys - the one who has reached my shoulder height but still cuddles in my lap on a daily basis. It's a sweet moment among so many sweet moments I have with this kid.

So it's a little jarring when he pipes up with this one: "We're all going to die."

I'd be lying if I said this was the start of a surprising conversation with this particular child. He's been a little obsessed with mortality since my grandpa died a couple of years ago. I've learned to roll with it.

"Yes," I reply. "Does it make you sad?"

"Well, I'm going to invent a machine that lets people live forever, way before you die, Mommy." 

"That would be interesting!"

He designs his immortality machine over and over again lately, filling notebooks with complex diagrams and algorithms that make sense only to him. But tonight, I don't launch into the Socratic method and lob questions at him about what society would do with limitless population or what quality of life issues might arise if we lived forever. He's such a tireless worrier. A worrier warrior. 

And it's hard even at age 40 to accept my own mortality and that of everyone around me. At 9 it's impossible to even catch the edge of the implications here - we are all going to die. Life is fragile. Shit can happen in the blink of an eye.  The weight of it all can be so paralyzing. I don't have to add to his pile tonight. 

"You know what's cool, though?" I ask.

He thinks for a long minute. Rhetorical questions mean nothing at age 9. 

"Astronauts have peed in space and then that pee was released into space so the pee is kind of part of our atmosphere now?"

"Well, no. Wait. Is that actually true?"

"I think so!"

"Hmm. Well, sure, that's kind of cool. But the other thing that's cool is that we're here right now. I'm here, you're here, and life is really great. We share so many wonderful memories and that will always be true," I say. 

"Until we die, you mean."

"That's kind of true, but we can leave things behind, like stories and writing and art and photographs..." 

"Yeah but then everybody who sees those things will also die and eventually no one will even know who you were. That's reality, Mommy."


"It's ok if you don't know what to say. I don't know what to say either! Life is strange! Anyway, do you think the astronauts also farted? Like the ones who have floated around in their suits? Could that kill someone?? All that methane gas trapped inside with them???" 

"Let's just look at the moon."

And we did, and it was good, and I was reminded once again how much I love these complicated/simple moments with these burgeoning little souls. 

Because he's right, you know. We're here for just a little while in the big scheme of things. Is there a greater gift than spending that little while with people you both like and love?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Family with a capital F

My extended family life is a mess.

I'm not going to sugar coat it. I'm not going to pretend I'm not a mess, myself, either.

When it comes to "my side of the family," as it were, we are a collective Mess-with-a-capital-M and I'm only just now, at age 40, realizing there isn't ever going to be some poignant moment when we get it together, mend all the broken fences, and start channeling the Waltons or the Cleavers or even the Bundys. We're always going to be more like the Bluths, and maybe in our more colorful moments, something out of the next Wes Anderson movie.

I'm not ashamed to own this mess, though, because I know I'm not alone. I know that if you are reading these words, you're a person (unless you're a spambot or an FBI surveillance program), and if you're a person, you've lived through a mess or two or twenty, too. You have messy moments. You've had messy family problems. You've experienced loss, change and drama, the extent of which could easily enthrall a nation, if you let an unscrupulous television network document it all. You have a distant or not-so-distant relative who has dealt with Problems-with-a-capital-P and you aren't sure how to reconcile your desire to both help them and shield yourself from the collateral damage of their own mess. Maybe you're the one with the capital-P problem. Your family, too, is probably a mess, at least sometimes.

Life is a mess. It's not even one of those so-called beautiful messes most of the time.

Yet here we are. We're a mess, and here we are. Take it or leave it; like or lump it. Embrace it or reject it - if you're reading these words, you are here - inhaling, exhaling, loving, grieving, hoping, worrying, working, breaking cycles and starting new ones, just trying to get home again at the end of each day.  This is the stuff of life - the constants, anyway.

In my family, we get it wrong sometimes. We're really bad at reading cues sometimes. We even hurt each other sometimes, and on an individual level, we take turns feeling forgotten or ignored or misunderstood. Our familial experiences are shared but they are also uniquely, painfully individual depending on our roles in a given situation. It's all but impossible to recognize how the same experiences have affected us each so differently. And so a familiar cycle continues - blame, shame and remorse. Again and again. It's wearying.

Sometimes I want to pile up the mess of this family, pour gasoline over it and toss in the match as I walk away (cue an appropriate soundtrack - maybe REM's "Bang and Blame?" ). But I never do. I never could.

We're bound by ancestry, by the messy, sticky blood that courses through our veins. And we're bound by the shared experience of surviving this mess together.

And sometimes, we manage to get it right. We remember the good memories more often than the bad ones. We know each other in ways no one else will ever really get because we lived through things together that won't ever happen again. When we're angry at each other, that anger is usually borne out of concern, out of love. Sometimes it takes time, but a hopeful glimmer of forgiveness remains.

So no, my family is unlikely to inspire a heartwarming sitcom any time soon. But you know what? As much as I've loved every "Richie Cunningham" who has crossed the battle-strewn path of my imperfect life, Happy Days was never much of a cliffhanger. I'd gladly take a punch to the jaw for these people if it came down to it.

I don't know how or why we manage to keep this mess (kind of) together, but I think it's probably because we're always going to need each other. We're always going to need to know the people who get why sometimes, something that looks like an unfixable mess is actually Family-with-a-capital-F.

It's as easy and as complicated as that.

Put that in your Christmas newsletter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Forty

Credit: Susanne Nilsson, Creative Commons License

I feel like I should mark the occasion of my fortieth birthday with some kind of writing, but I’ve been trying for six weeks and so far, all I can push out is trite, overwrought and a little melodramatic. In other words, my predilections haven’t changed much since I hit that magical number - the one that so clearly divides youth and whatever we’re currently calling the other side of that coin. 

I guess I’ll say a few things at this distinct mile marker on my inevitable march toward death, anyway. I’m too old now to get too hung up on whether or not the eight people who might read this will think I’m trite. I’ve got news for you: It’s all trite. It’s all been done. None of us knows anything. The only difference I’m finding at 40 is that this thought no longer terrifies me. 

But here are some things I feel sure about, and a little advice, too. I fully acknowledge that in another decade, I’ll feel a flush of shame and realize I still didn’t know shit at 40, either, but it’s important to honor ourselves right where we are sometimes. I hope 50-year-old me agrees. Here goes:

We’re all seekers. Some of us are stronger in our convictions than others. Some of us have deeply held faith in the unknowable and it guides us. Some of us challenge everything and accept nothing at face value. No matter what, we all seek knowledge and love and companionship and fulfillment, if we’re lucky. 

We’re all wrong and that’s alright. No one is right all of the time, and you never know if you’re catching someone else in a right or wrong moment. Be slow to criticize and quick to empathize. Repeat to yourself in times of confusion and especially in those moments when you’re feeling a little smug: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Even if you don’t believe in “god” or God or g_d. Because none of this is permanent. The Earth below your feet is constantly shifting and now and again, the crack that emerges might feel as though it will swallow you up. Or maybe you’ll just wish it would. Cherish the lovely moments when they come, if you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself more likely to recognize the preciousness in those moments in retrospect. It’s impossible to inject meaning in the moment. Meaning comes later. 

Nobody gets the best version of you all of the time. The people who stick around anyway are probably your tribe. Embrace and acknowledge these kindred spirits because there isn't an endless supply of them.

We’re all gonna die, and that’s not just a gorgeous Sufjan Stevens’ lyric. I’m prone to getting stuck on this hurdle. Mortality is maybe the only thing that’s for sure. Wherever your faith leads you, this corporeal form will falter one day. I’ll leave it to you to define what a soul really is or why we’re here, anyway, or what will happen to your supposed legacy. But I will say this: We’re all gonna die, and I think it makes better sense to channel the Flaming Lips on this matter: “Instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast. It’s hard to make the good things last…” 

Everyone we know will die, too. Again, the Flaming Lips gets it. "Do you realize that everyone you've ever known someday will die?" Yup. And man, that sucks. It's something some of us try to comprehend all our lives. You've got to find your own way through this little nugget of truth. Grief is unique to every person. You can't walk another person through it. You can't pull someone out of it. It alters people and it hurts and it's all part of the journey. When it visits you, be patient with yourself.

Some things are universal. Smiles. Music. Laughter. Sadness. Loss. Guilt. Somewhere right now, across the expanse of the universe is someone who is nothing like you, but who understands all of these things, intimately, as do you, as did your mother’s mother, as will your children’s children. The human condition is universal. We’re all just trying to get home again. 

Kindness matters. And it doesn’t mean rolling over or channeling a high traffic welcome mat. It means honoring the fact that we’re all going through our own shit, and nobody can hold together the fragile pieces of their own little world all of the time, so for the love of Pete, try a little patience. Stand up for yourself because you matter, too, but hold out a little tenderness for your fellow man. Stand up for the voiceless and for the things you believe in and try to hold out hope for people who have turned away from humanity. Nobody was born to hate. We all have the capacity, and the soul-sucking need for love and belonging. Bad things happen where love isn’t allowed to grow. Call me a hippie and hand me my rose-colored glasses, but I mean this in a practical way. Humans need love. Full stop.

When you screw it all up, own it and eventually, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself when you’ve done all you can. Repentance is a waste at a certain point. It’s not productive. Sometimes, you won’t get your words across right. Sometimes, you’ll sink so quickly into the muck that you won’t recognize it as muck until it’s up to your chin and by then, nobody’s getting out clean. Learn to step away. Understand that not everyone will like you, or get you, or think anything about you at all. It’s okay. Don’t get too stuck on this. 

Get more sun. Drink more water. Put down your devices more often. Breathe. Drop out of the race when you reach your personal goal. Ignore most magazines. Make art. Sing. Hike. 

Listen to Mary Oliver.