the accidental coffee hour

I’m not sure if it is worse to forget a dentist appointment, or to remember it a week early. Either way, I’d gotten a baby-sitter for little Em, and somehow presented our dentist visit to Erik with the right balance of enthusiasm and bribery to convince him it would be ok. And then the receptionist looked at me sympathetically and said, “Oh, I’d love to get you in today – we even have an opening! But your insurance…” and we all know insurance usually has the last word. We walked back out into the wind and sunshine and I decided that if Erik hadn’t earned his treat, I’d at least feel better if I had mine. And so we landed at a coffee shop, with one extra-large bar of blueberry crisp on a saucer and a small cup of coffee with cream. 

Sitting in a coffee shop isn’t Erik’s ideal world. I find this forgivable in a three-year-old. We discovered the saving grace of a Little Free Library inside, complete with childrens books and a few toys. So we read. We counted the wooden blocks that he pushed up and over the curled wire frame of the toy. We took a bite of the blueberry crisp; then he decided he was done, and I took several more bites. He climbed on and off his chair and I watched him flip through the books and talk about the people around us and I took a picture because sometimes I forget to just sit with him and listen. 

Yesterday we went for a walk, Em in the stroller and him on his little strider bike. And then half way through I saw the way he was crouching and I offered to raise the seat. I forgot for a moment how much he’d grown; how eighteen months ago when his sister was born, he wasn’t tall enough to even sit on the seat at its lowest. Here he is now riding a mile around the neighborhood. 

We could go back further; once upon a time in my first springtime with him, we walked miles and miles with the stroller, or him in the baby carrier on my back, twisting around side to side trying to touch the trees and almost making me lose my balance. There was a summer that he learned to ride the tricycle and every time we went to the park after that I had to push him back up the almost imperceptible hill before our house. I was pregnant, no less, but he was cute and it was worth it. We spent a lot of those pregnant days playing on the footbridge across from the park. Peek-a-boo and chasing games, letting him run downhill and walk back up over and over. Climbing the bridge rails and holding his shirt to keep him safe while he leaned over and threw leaves into the water.

It’s been years and years since he was born. A million maybe. Almost four really. That’s how motherhood is. You love so big it could fill eternity but there it is all crammed into a body the size of a not-quite-toddler-anymore. It makes the time pass, and it doesn’t. Life as a parent goes by those contraries, and I forget sometimes to stop and look at the tiny boy who came out fighting on a quiet June morning. 

But here he is in front of me, asking me to read the book we found in the little library one more time, and reiterating that he really doesn’t want even a tiny bite of the blueberry crisp. So I put my phone away and help him count the blocks as they go up and around, over and over. The Zebra striped square. The orange circle. The green triangle. And I read about the Monkey Marimba at the zoo. I take a bite of crisp and hold my coffee steady as he climbs in and out of my lap, and I take the time we didn’t spend at the dentist to be with my boy again.

Hey there – you know there’s a whole host of stories and essays I publish only by email? That’s also the place where you can really write back – join the conversation. Drop your email address right here. Let’s be friends.

an unfinished house

There is a lot about my house that is unfinished. The dining room floor needs to be sanded and stained and part of the living room needs to be re-stained. A significant number of transition strips between floors need to be purchased or created and installed. There are two rooms that need flooring and three that need trim and four that the Lord truly… well anyway. 

It will be a long time before there are no more boxes in the house and maybe longer before I feel settled. At this rate it could be forever before this place is home. But that’s a pessimistic and unfortunate view of everything packed or unpacked, and I don’t choose it. I choose to just keep swimming (hello Dory, I see you there.) 

Keeping on doesn’t look big, which is a bummer. Sometimes it feels bigger than it looks, which is helpful. Today I moved eight paint cans out of the corner of a room and laid down a small braided rug and arranged a delicate heap of six pillows. I found two old quilts of mine, one that I made and one that my aunt made for me. My toddler and I counted the star pattern squares in the quilt I’d made (there are nine, if you were wondering) and then we folded the quilts next to the corner and now one more part of the house is closer to finished, ready, unpacked, home. I did it, the keeping on, this morning. It didn’t look big, especially since I had to move a large TV screen from one unfinished room into another just to try to finish that corner. It felt like rearranging work without making any progress. But the pillows were progress. I pulled them out of a large black garbage bag and dug the blankets out of a trunk in my bedroom and now one corner of the house has been transformed. What used to be temporary storage for a rotating fan and some paint is now a reading nook under a window, and even if hanging the curtains has to wait another day or month or two, we’ve made progress. 

Part of the reason that keeping on looks so little and feels so big is that a lot of it is outlet and light switch covers that I need to put back on in rooms that we painted. You’d think there’s nothing easier and you’d be mostly right, except that apparently the motivation required to move eight paint cans, one rotating fan and a large-screen TV is less than what’s required to take the outlet cover from the mantel and fasten it to the outlet two feet to the right. I may not be the brightest and best with math but there’s something unbalanced about that equation. 

But now it’s afternoon and afternoons are for baby naps and then long walks with the toddler, and I don’t have the energy on top of planning dinner to reattach outlet covers. This is why there is a choice; it’s not a choice so much of what happens, because four out of four people in this house need to eat before bed tonight. It’s an attitude choice. I get to look around at the unsanded dining room floor and the outlet covers that are beginning to get mismatched and moved around, and I just get to choose one small thing to do, and then choose joy. 

Joy is shy. She’s always coming to the door but Dissatisfaction knocks louder. Use the peep-hole, or the doorbell camera if you’ve got one. Dissatisfaction will pelt you with the outlet covers until you have square-shaped bruises, but Joy will wink at them and ask if you’re serving ice cream or chocolate cake for dessert, because that pile of brightly colored pillows needs to be celebrated. Joy will pull up the window shades and ignore the dirty dishes and let the kids play outside barefoot in January because they’re having fun and really, it’s just mud. Joy will painstakingly count the nine patchwork stars on that old lap-quilt you made a dozen and a half years ago even though it’s already past naptime, because the three-year-old loves his new star-blanket and Joy wants to witness it. 

Lean in. Choose joy. Keep on keeping on one paint can, one throw pillow, one patchwork star at a time. It’s worth it, because a home isn’t made by choosing the perfect trim and deciding yesterday which floor to lay in the bathroom. Home lives in the outlet covers that float around on the mantel while you create a reading corner for your babes, in the mud you brush off their shoes after they’ve played outside in the warm afternoon. It’s in the cup of coffee you enjoy while they nap and the friends who eat around the table even while the floor under them is rough around the edges. Home is not the finished house that’s kept you awake at night working, but the unfinished house you’ve really lived in. Live in it, darling, and watch the house become a home around you.

a laughter a day

I think nearly everybody comes to the same conclusion as they get older: time goes quickly. When you look back from a far enough distance, everything is foreshortened. The long twelve months of the year 2020. The everlasting nights when you woke up every two hours to feed a baby. The ninth month of pregnancy. Or the days between knowing you get to adopt and then taking that beloved human home for the first night. Grad school. High school even. The never-ending night after you broke up with your first girlfriend or boyfriend. Things lose their length in hindsight. Things in the mirror are closer than they appear.

But we say this about parenting more than anything else. Enjoy every moment. The years fly by. Blink and it’s over. One day they’re babies and the next they’re going off to college. It might all be as true as Moses but that doesn’t help the days that feel everlasting right here, right now, washing out this poopy underwear or biting your tongue because having “helpers” in the kitchen is the misnomer of the year, or maybe the century. 

However fast the years may be going for the mom-turned-grandma, they’re slow for me. And maybe there’s actually an enchanted blink you make sometime and bam, they’re literally in high school a second later. I have not discovered this. In the meantime, the seconds are long and the minutes are long and the days are long. Hindsight shortens but the present lengthens enough to balance it out, apparently. And no matter how delightful or funny or obedient or enjoyable my two babes are for much of the time, there’s still much that’s otherwise. Enjoying every moment sounds helpful and typical and trite and it sounds impossible. It is impossible. So I have learned to set my sights on a different goal.

We don’t enjoy every moment. But we do try to laugh every day. I remember when I was mama to a baby just trying out laughter, him just beginning to understand bubbly joy and the glimmerings of humor. He laughed when we swung him up in the air. He laughed when we played peek-a-boo. He laughed when we jumped up and down or danced around the kitchen or tipped him upside down. And I began to try to find all the ways I could to make him laugh, because they were fleeting. Shaking the Pooh rattle one day was just right and a week later he’d want nothing to do with it. Singing in a silly voice at bedtime was funny for a while, and later it was jumping jacks when I did my exercise, or crawling around on the floor with him, or letting him try to hold a door closed against me. 

But day by day, the laughs stacked up. We moved from silly movements and mimes to running in circles together or tickling his nose with aspen leaves in the fall. We swooped his booted toes into the snow through the winter and tickled his cheeks when he sat in the swing at the park. Now we make silly faces and race our Hotwheels cars around the roads printed on a play mat in his room. We crash old tonka trucks into each other and mimic each other’s silly faces. I tickle his nose with the pompom of his winter hat. He says “hotdog-uh” in a funny voice. A well-timed tickle on his collarbones still doubles him over with giggles, and when I get the hiccups, he says, “Mommy, are you… are you.. Are you hiking up?” and we both begin to laugh. I’m not the only one trying to bring out the giggles anymore. But our laughter is still piling up. One memory at a time. Each day I hunt it down, that moment of joy, of unrestrained mirth. 

I do it because there is freedom in laughter. There is joy in laughter. There is relationship and humor and comfort and restoration and reconciliation. These are the things I want for my babies. I want to have a bond within which we can laugh, over and over and over. I want us to be comfortable with each other. I want to find joy with them, humor with them, restoration, enjoyment, a life-long series of good times together with which we can weather the bad. 

We don’t laugh all day, every day. Sometimes it’s a real struggle. I’m in a mood. He’s in a mood. Baby Girl might even be in a mood. The way she holds a piece of plum or pie or potato out over the floor and prepares to drop it while she stares me dead in the eye would try the patience of a saint. But most days, even with the whining or the food-dropping or the days when I’ve just barely gotten any sleep and we’re running from the grocery store to the play-date and back again for naps – even then we can find a moment to laugh. Maybe it’s the sheer joy of spotting a train when we were playing I Spy. Maybe it’s the nose-wrinkling way Baby Girl grinned when we babbled at her that brings me and the toddler a laugh. Maybe it’s a tickle war or wrestling or crashing the toy cars gleefully over and over until a finger gets pinched. Somehow. An opportunity rises, and if it doesn’t I create one, and if even that feels like a stretch I help him to create one. Laughter matters like that. No matter how quickly the years might just fly by or pass in that one wild blink, no matter that we’ll always be told to enjoy every moment and we’ll never be able to achieve it – no matter. We have laughter, and we have a lot of it.

crows

A few years ago we lived in a neighborhood next to a golf course. The lawns were green and sparkling. The sidewalks were flat and maintained. The houses were craftsman style and beautiful, and shaded by old trees that grew in avenues of towering green. Everybody had a garden and almost nobody had weeds. I loved living in that home. Anywhere we walked was beautiful. I can remember only one corner where an old twisted tree had pushed a piece of the sidewalk into jagged shapes. I liked it because it was different, and because the rest of the smooth sidewalks made it easy to walk to. Every street was polished and beautiful. I could live in the middle of a city, I thought, if I could live in a place like this – perfect and beautiful. Peonies in this yard as the spring grew to summer and roses across the street when summer got older. Magnolia next to the purple house, blooming in the springtime and a lilac hedge anywhere you look. 

Our new neighborhood isn’t exactly new anymore, either to life or to us. It’s not a golf-course neighborhood. The sidewalks are cracked in most places and crumbling in some. Sometimes the curb slopes down to the street and sometimes it’s like a mile-high drop, though maybe that only matters to people with stiff knees and those like me who are trying to get a stroller across the street. The trees are well enough old but you’ll see untrimmed dead branches striking brown through the thick summer foliage. And there are crows here. Every time we visit our family in Minnesota I see the finches and hear the robins and Mom points out with enthusiastic energy every time she sees a bluebird. But here there are squirrels and crows – it’s not to the exclusion of other birds but when I’m out walking the chipped sidewalks in the evening cool, it’s the crows I see and hear, flying sometimes ominously and sometimes beautifully through the particular sunset gold. 

A steam of crows flies overhead one evening while I walk; I hear them above me and stare at them with a fascination I don’t exactly understand. The collective noun for crows is murder: a murder of crows. They did not feel like murder on this night. They were so low I heard their wings rushing like hurried breaths in the night air. The first word to mind was phalanx. Syllables that rise and fall and breathe, rapid like wings. Phalanx. Is that the collective noun for swans? I wonder if I would rather see swans this evening. 

I have been walking with urgency – tired and almost discontent with the chipped paint, with the overgrown and untamed quality of our neighborhood. A long week of parenting and staying in to avoid the rain, of wanting to write and not writing, has made me unable or unwilling to look for the silver linings. Bright dahlias big as small melons, alpine sunflowers growing riot in every second yard. Green things poking up undaunted between pieces of a sidewalk. The way morning sunlight filters into everything even when you see it through the shadows. Some days it all becomes just an excuse to miss the quiet shady green of the golf-course neighborhood streets with the level sidewalks and the perfect craftsman houses in their white trim. 

But it’s the same in that moment with the large black fluttering as it is when, on an endless weary day, I walk under the whispering silver maples or see the composite sumac leaves like double vision and always feel a particular sort of joy that is more like satisfaction in the rightness of things. The crows and their wingbeats and their shining thick black feathers against the gray sky couldn’t belong anywhere else but that moment above the street and in a second I recognized that I couldn’t belong anywhere else either. These sidewalks and the houses are both a little chipped but the imperfect flowerbeds are still blooming and wild, and the glow from the sun in the fold of the mountains still sits in the air above us like an early promise of tomorrow’s sunrise.

I don’t suppose that we’ll always live in this faded network of streets; there’s a budget growing to the size of a down payment and we talk how long a daily commute would be from this or that part of town, whether we’d be close enough to our church and how long the drive up to the mountains would take. But maybe the crows will live there too, wherever there is. I’ll still have the streets and sidewalks for walking in, cracked or crumbled or perfect, and in all hope and likelihood the sun will still float out a golden evening haze from a fold in the western mountains. But until then. Until. I’ve still got these old chipped paths to walk on and still those crows that fly in a long phalanx, black and glorious and misnamed against the blue or gold or gray sky with a rush of wings like even breaths.

of throw pillows and washing dishes

Every night after I tuck my littles into bed but before I sit down with a glass of wine, my husband and I blitz-clean our house. I wash the dishes. He picks up the throw pillows (too-aptly named) and the teething toys. I scan the living room for plates and juice cups left out all afternoon. He vacuums under the toddler’s place at the table. I pick up the dirty socks and onesies that got tossed in the general direction of the clothes hamper and put the diaper rash cream back on its shelf. He wipes the counter and measures out the grounds for tomorrow’s coffee. And then we look at each other, and sigh and let our shoulders droop a little, and he mixes up a simple cocktail while I pour some cheap red, and we go sit in our respective armchairs. 

And the only reason I don’t blitz the house before dinner or during naptime is because there are other things to blitz while the sun shines. Picking up this puzzle before we can get that one out. Putting away the crayons when we want to go for a walk. Wiping up spilled milk without crying, and teaching a three-year-old to brush his teeth after breakfast. Reading, and reminding one child not to throw the books while I keep the other from putting them into her mouth. Sometimes we remember to say “Sorry Mommy,” and sometimes we remember a little better after there’s been a natural consequence. Sometimes we remember best when we’re not also hangry, or just up from a disorienting nap. 

There’s a hiking trail to blitz, or a Starbucks run or a doctor’s appointment or the dentist. A workout, a playdate, a phone call to this or that favorite auntie. And sometimes there are so many things that I sink into a cozy chair at naptime, hungry for a late lunch, and realize I haven’t really sat down since I climbed the stairs to get the kiddos up at 7 am. And after they wake, I won’t have nothing-to-do until after they’re in bed again, and I’ve blitzed the house just clean enough to relax for an hour or so before I brush my teeth again and set my wine glass in the sink as a precursor for tomorrow’s breakfast dishes. 

I don’t bring up the blitzing to complain about it. Everybody has work. These people have more work and those have less. These stay home with children all day and those don’t. I stay home. And this season is different than it will be later. One day they’ll take themselves to the bathroom and I won’t even think of diapers, or even of wiping their bottoms when they’re all done. One day they’ll be able to reach the bread and the toaster and the butter knife all by themselves and I won’t spend most of snack time saying Yes, I’m coming – just a minute over and over while I try to remember toast with honey and milk in the purple cup, not the green. One day. Not today. Today I spend a solid six hours in work and busyness before lunch and if I’m lucky only another six after naps. 

I understand that this is the way it is. I don’t need it to change before it’s time; kids will grow at their own pace and there’s nothing I can do to change that, nor would I. Except maybe I would fast forward through some of the vegetable battles we have at dinner. I digress. I am not bemoaning the hard and constant work that comes with parenting. But even while I willingly, wearily place one foot in front of the other, I sometimes wonder what’s the point

What good is there in picking up throw pillows and arranging them on the couch, or putting away rubbery teething toys and shiny rattles if we’re going to pull them out again in the morning? What’s the point in picking up every Hot Wheels car and Tonka car and Playmobil figure and lego person if they’re going to be all over the floor again in ten hours? Why sweep up the peas under the high chair every day if I’m only going to set more peas on the tray in front of my baby tomorrow? 

And I know. I know. The place would be a mess if we didn’t. Cars and peas and pillows everywhere – books thrown and chewed and bent. Shelves probably stacked with more sippy cups and empty toddler plates than books or toys. So we pick up and we teach our children to pick up. The dirty table napkins and the onesies and the muddy t-shirts and socks all make it to the laundry basket eventually, sometimes in several migratory tosses as I encounter them in the house and throw them somewhat in the right direction. The three-year-old brings his plate to the counter after dinner, and some days he pretends to wash the dishes in his little play kitchen while I scrub away at “Mommy’s sink”. 

And sometimes, in the middle of picking up another puzzle piece we missed under the edge of the couch or setting down my evening glass of wine to put away some laundry I missed – sometimes I am able to reach briefly beyond just the step-by-step mundanity of maintaining a home and realize that maybe, these are the little things we must be faithful in before we can have the big things. Maybe the scrubbed dishes and the peas we swept up again today and yesterday and the day before, the poopy onesies that we scrubbed out and the sippy cups we filled with milk and found soured somewhere in the living room and washed to fill again – maybe these moments are building in us the faithfulness for the much that God promises to those who are faithful in little. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe it builds character, as your mother might say, or lays a foundation. After all, if you can faithfully do the dishes three times a day for three hundred and sixty-five days every year, or even faithfully teach the littles as they get older how to do those same dishes in their turn – you can probably be trusted with big things. And maybe in the middle of the repetition and plodding and mundanity, here and there, when the boy puts the books away unprompted or remembers to wipe his hands after dinner – here and there you might even find a moment of glory.

when you can’t say it all

It has been said to me frequently by other writers that in order to withstand the rigors of writing for publication, we have to fall in love with the writing itself. We need to love the process. It is the process that will always be with us; the editing and book launching and getting authors to write blurbs – these will be short seasons that pass. They aren’t what we’re here for. We’re writers. We’re here to write. 

And as much as I try to love the process, there’s a pressure that often gets in my way. The pressure of making my best work. 

Don’t misunderstand me – it’s good to make excellent work, to give writing the best that I have in me. It’s good to edit and polish, criticize and critique, hone and practice. That is vital. That is important. Without an eye to challenging our own work, without looking for the ways we can grow, we won’t. But my ultimate goal is to write for hope, for joy. Books and stories have given me fresh eyes to see the beauty in my own life and I want my writing to do that for others, and I want the piece I’m writing right now to be that piece and I forget that I have decades to fulfill this goal of mine. 

I may want to be remembered as a writer who inspired hope into those who felt drowned in the mundanity of their lives, but I have a lifetime of writing ahead of me. Possibly, even hopefully, the one manuscript I have right now will not be the only one I produce. After all, I have no plans to stop writing if/when this book finds its publisher. And so, this book, this writing, this project can take on its own perfect, most excellent shape without being the exact embodiment of everything I want to say in my writing. I am allowed to say more, later. Maturity will have a different voice, a deeper voice. There are experiences and moments and decades and conversations and heart-changes that will never fit into the one manuscript I have written right now. 

I can polish and edit until this book is perfect, but I need to avoid the trap of needing to fit all of my words into this one project. I have more memories than there are pages in a memoir. I have more essays than there will be posts on my blog. I have more thoughts than there will be entries in my journal. 

I think we who are artists underestimate maturity. We think that when we finish our PhD, we need to have achieved the pinnacle of clear, scholarly thought. We imagine that when we are published, we will have established who we are as authors. We sit down to the long game of seeing a project to completion and we think that project needs to be the completion of us – we forget that there are often so many, many more years ahead. We forget that people change and grow and our voices, our art, will change and grow with us. That we will change and grow with our art.

So don’t forget to close the chapter, sometime. It’s ok that some pieces are left out. Hone and edit and critique your work but remember that if it doesn’t not say everything that’s written on your heart, that’s fine. Your heart can say so much more than a book, an essay, a painting, a pottery vase could ever convey. So keep creating. We know in our minds that one project is not the end, but remember too that it is not the grand summary. It can express one thing you had to say. The next project will take it further, will add a new tambre to your voice. This is ok. This is maturity. This is knowing which work must represent which ideas, which growth. When you’ve published one book or sold one painting, you haven’t finished talking and we haven’t finished listening. 

Hold fast, keep walking. Close a chapter and smile about it. There is more ahead than you can imagine.

the waiting months

Spring and waiting seem to go together like coffee and cream. It’s not winter anymore; some parts of the country have crocuses and snowdrops springing up and snow hasn’t been on the forecast for weeks. At the same time, a certain Dairy Queen in Moorhead, Minnesota opens for the season March 1st and you can see a line of people with spring in their hearts and winter boots on their feet stretched out several feet long, waiting to get ice cream that they hope will, with an irony as swirled as their chocolate-and-vanilla cones, convince the cold to leave again.

But whether you’re licking an ice cream while you stand in the snow, or welcoming snowdrops, there’s no finality to March and April. They’re an in-between. Spring probably doesn’t feel fully real yet in the first warm days. And yet spring is a season unto itself. These months may be seem to be a segue to summer but they’re really a destination too. 

I think there are seasons in our lives that feel like that. We’ve waited and worked to get to where we are and we’re there now, at a destination of sorts, but it’s a moving, shifting destination. An arrival that signals an end and a beginning, and is itself a long, stretching, middle. It’s like having toddlers. (So many of my ideas and writing and topics revolve around toddlers right now.) You’ve waited and wanted to become a mom, and then you were eager for them to be walking and talking, and now they’re walking and talking, and you know that childhood comes next but it’ll be a minute yet, and here you are! But here you remain. 

It’s possible that this is largely the sleep deprivation talking. The nap strikes, the refusal to eat dinner. Don’t misunderstand me – I love this boy of mine and his sweet attitude and his constant activity and his curiosity. I love him deep and whole and I love him all the time. But if you’ve ever gotten on a treadmill to run at a fast jog for hours until your legs give out and then another lap for good measure, you know what kind of energy and tenacity it takes to parent a toddler. 

It’s just like the month of March. You’re in between two starkly contrasted seasons and it’s a season of its own and it seems to be longer than January and February put together, ya know? 

But don’t swear off children just yet. Recall the snowdrops I was talking about. They’re not the only spring flowers. Snowdrops come and then crocuses come, and soon there are even daffodils. Here in Colorado the golden forsythia glow even on a cloudy day. There are green spikes of irises reviving in my neighbor’s garden bed. The sharp yucca plants become more vibrant. Lilacs are stirring. Trees are budding out before they sprout leaves. You may lay down on the landing of the staircase in exhaustion and open your eyes to discover your toddler bending over you to give you a goodnight kiss as he “tucka ‘oo in” for a nap. You may find that one day when you lay down next to him in the middle of the nap strike, you both begin to giggle uncontrollably, down on the floor, face to face. Making memories, I hope. Laughing memories that stay bright in the dusty storage banks of recall.

Look for those moments. Hunt for them. Lay down – a patch as small as the landing of the stairs will do – and stare at the ceiling until you can remember what it is about this season that brings you joy. Don’t hustle too far too fast yet: let moments of happiness “tuck ‘oo in” to the season of in-between. It is better when we linger.

don’t rush a feeling

Sometimes when I am tired or sad or full of angst, I get annoyed at people who try to help me feel better. I don’t want to feel better right away. I need to get good and frustrated, to actually feel what I’m feeling, before I can start to turn it around. And sometimes people who want to help seem reluctant to let me feel my emotions. You can’t chase the rain clouds away before they’ve started raining. They’re not even your rainclouds if you don’t feel a few wet drops. It’s the same with the weird, sad, intense feelings. They need a moment to become real. If you welcome them in and offer them a glass of water, they’ll be more willing to leave when you show them the door. 

I’ve maybe had more tough days than normal lately. That’s probably true for all of us. We’re locked in these four walls and coming face to face with selves we didn’t quite know. That’s a hard thing all on its own – meeting parts of us we didn’t know existed and aren’t sure if we like. Don’t worry. You’ll adjust. Just don’t rush yourself. It’s ok to recognize angst and feel it and get to know it before you move past it. If you ignore sadness and hurt and frustration, they’re not going to leave, they’re going to hover. You may have less outright tough days but there will be a black-ish tension lying under everything instead of the open type of pain that comes when you sit down and make introductions. 

I’m not saying we should make Grief our roommate, give Frustration permission to rearrange the furniture, and let Angst do all the meal prep. There are limits. You like your couch where you like your couch, and it’s better to cuddle those throw pillows you’ve ordered online than it is to snuggle up with pain like a long-term houseguest. Besides, Frustration is notably terrible at remembering (or caring enough) to open the curtains and windows on a sunshiny morning, and frankly sunshine is as important for you as for your houseplants. Trust me on this. Open your window. I didn’t yesterday and look where that got me. Crabby by dinner time, and nothing short of two strawberry muffins and a walk under the stars would do for a cure.

While we’re talking about open windows, when you need a place to sit and get acquainted with all the heavy things walking with you lately, find an open window. The trees aren’t trying to fix anything. They know how to listen, murmuring their own indistinct and indirect sympathies. They won’t share your secrets with anybody but the nosy squirrels – and maybe your frustrations will get planted with the autumn’s acorns. In a hundred years you can walk through the forest and look for the strength of oaks that grew out of your pain. The birds will gossip about their own hardships in sing-song lilts. Hey that’s a good idea – sing like a bird. They say getting tipsy and embarrassing yourself with karoke break-up songs is good for a broken heart. Maybe it’ll help to get our own angst out in the sad songs we’ve saved from the last season of grief. And the breeze somehow knows just how much you do or don’t want a hug even without your saying. Having your hair teased around without needing to respond might be the most therapeutic thing yet.

Whatever happens, whatever it is pressing down on you right now, even as you’re lifting the blinds and wincing at the sun in your eyes, remember: There isn’t a quick fix. It’s a big feeling and it’ll pass, but it can’t go well if it’s pushed. Sometimes we just need to create a landing space for those things. Let them come to pass. If they’ve been greeted and acknowledged and offered a drink, they’ll be less clingy when we ask them to go. 

not your best work

Today is the day the fears come. You’ve known they would – don’t we all? – but you kept doing the thing until they came because you weren’t so afraid in those moments. Maybe the thing was rock climbing or writing or dancing or working on making new friends. Doesn’t matter much; you get a good enough pep-talk and you can keep going off of that for a while because you feel so seen and so perfectly understood that you can move forward knowing somebody is at your back, cheering for you. 

And then one day you feel alone again. (Maybe that is where most fear is based: we think failure means rejection and rejection, loneliness and so we vow never to fail, even if we must never try.) You felt alone again today. You imagined how it might be if you didn’t perform as well on your next attempt and you wrapped it in failure and you wrapped the failure in rejection and you looked at this like you were holding it in the palm of your hand, and then you threw it as far away from yourself as you could. Nobody, nobody wants to be lonely. 

This, then, is the day that matters most. You will not do your best today. I understand that. I accept that, dear heart. I still care about you. So many people who will probably never know your best work and your worst work and even your mediocre work still care about you; will always care about you. Your skill is not going to be the measure of your loneliness. This day matters because it’s the day you fought back against the fear. It’s the day you rejected the fear of loneliness out of hand. Today is the day you stood up with your knees knocking and you didn’t sit back down again until you’d done that thing, because you’re brave and because you’re learning that this thing right here doesn’t define who you are or even how most people see you. 

There is something to be said for rest days or cheat days or days off but we’re not going to say it here, because we’re not talking about rest and sabbaths and the need to breathe. We’re talking about the need to stop hyperventilating, the need to wipe the tears, the need to blow our noses and take a deep breath and put in one more day, however short, at the habit that’s being built. I said you won’t do your best work today but maybe that was wrong. Maybe you will. Maybe we should realize that some of our absolute best work isn’t the prettiest or the fastest or the longest or the best-played – it was the hardest, to which we still sat down and gave our best. 

I want you to think so much about the work you’re going to do today that you forget to leave space for the fear. If you can’t sit down and do it right now, do the next best thing: start planning it. Plan to sit down after you’ve cleared the dinner dishes; plan to lace up your running shoes when you slip off your heels. Create the vision in your mind and make it as appealing as possible. The cool air brushing past you as you run. The familiar, comforting tap of the keys when you’re practicing piano. The slow way the yoga mat stretches gradually under your fingers, until your palms are damp and sweaty and sliding. Picture this work and picture your place in it. Picture your running route. Imagine the words you’re going to write. Eventually you’ll leave no room for procrastination. You’ll be fighting less fear because you’ll be armed with joy. 

And sure; maybe that sounds a bit grandiose. It doesn’t work on every hard day. Some days stay hard right up through the moment you close the laptop and wonder vaguely how you learned to write such crap. I have done this. I still do this. It will always suck and it will never be easy. Skipping it will always seem like the best option on those days but it isn’t. I need you to believe me: when you think nobody is cheering you on, that is when I’m here cheering you on. I’m writing this for you to remember when you feel like you can’t possibly have anything good to produce or practice today. This day, darling? This impossible day right here? This is your best day. Don’t lose it.

don’t forget what you love

Darling – will you hear me for a second? Don’t forget to love the things you love. I relearned this for my own self recently, and I think the story is important. Get cozy.

I used to take my phone with me everywhere not so much for phone things but for the camera. In fact if there was a pretty aesthetic somewhere, I’d go and get my phone so I could try to find a way to photograph it. Raining? Let me find the prettiest view of raindrops through the right window. Sunshine? Maybe I could blow some bubbles and catch rainbow reflections. A pile of pillows in a coffee shop window? Excuse me while I’m the weirdo trying to subtly get the lighting just right and keep that lady working on her computer out of the photo. 

Two summers ago we moved up to a summer camp for my husband’s job and there was no cell signal. We had wi-fi in a few select locations, but I began to use the lack of reception and internet as a good reason to disconnect from my phone on a regular basis. I don’t think that was a bad idea, but I began to lose my habit of cell phone photography. I wasn’t a professional by any means – I just loved trying to capture moments of beauty. But slowly that capturing slipped away. A whole year went by that way. I even started taking walks at home without my phone. I don’t think that was a bad practice either, but maybe I was too thorough. I went through our second summer at camp and have scarcely any photographs to show for it. 

But now I’ve realized that since I’m not looking for beautiful pictures, I’m not even looking as much. I don’t notice the beautiful things that would have captivated me a year or two ago. And I miss that. 

I set out to spend less time with my phone and I accomplished that goal, but I should maybe have been more specific with myself. I should maybe spend less time scrolling through social media from the comfort of my cozy corner chair, and more time out photographing the pretty things I love to share on Instagram. So darling, don’t forget to love what you love. You can find yourself missing pieces of you that you never intended to let go of, and that would be a real heart-break. The world needs all the beauty you have to offer. 

It’s true that sometimes you need to step back from the things that you love for a little while. I stepped back from writing for a while and came back refreshed and ready to do more. It was wholesome, if tumultuous. I understand that we need breaks, time to rest, moments or months of quiet. But I came back and I think the coming back is important. 

I’m just now coming back to taking pictures on my cell phone and it’s giving me life in ways I had forgotten about. What beautiful things have you forgotten to love? What favorite habits or life-giving places have you been setting aside for too long? Don’t forget that it’s ok to love the simple things – taking walks or going for a run, walking through a greenhouse or planting a garden, sitting at a coffee shop or practicing a pour over. These little habits of ours are restful and nurturing and odds are when you neglect them they’re taking more from you than you know. 

Set aside some time to be frivolous. Take your phone with you on a long walk. Stop to photograph anything that catches your eye, big as a house or small as a leaf. Lace up your running shoes and do the extra mile, even if you feel like you should be home doing the dishes. Bake something and if you’re worried about that baking habit sticking to your hips, look up a new recipe and discover ways to make your favorite foods love you back. Just don’t forget to love the things that you love, babe.

some assembly required

Do we build our lives moment by moment? 

I have nearly finished arranging the wall above our chairs in the living room. A large framed poster, a small piece of art from a craft fair, two photo grids with miniature clothes pins, a star-chart, a macramé hanging. One framed picture card left to hang. A few photographs left to clip up to the photo grid. Not complete, but close. 

I’ve collected the things over a long time. It took even longer to realize I wanted a gallery wall like this. I’ve never fallen in love with the gallery walls Pinterest has to offer when I search for them. But somehow the homemade macramé, year-old star chart, framed poster from an Airbnb, photo-grids that are just gold-colored cooling racks from a kitchen, and craft fair art from ten years ago all belong together. A motley crowd, joined by the fact that I admire them, and some occasional overlapping colors. 

In so many ways we’re moving into this new home the way I’ve collected art for our wall. Piece by piece, bit by bit. We settle one thing here and then there until we find where it belongs, where we love it. Should the clock stay in the kitchen, or do we hang the spice rack there next to the fridge and move the clock to the dining room, pop of color between two windows? I pushed the huge, wheeled coffee table back and forth across the room three times in one day while Erik napped. I stopped when I was too tired to remember my own opinion about where it should go, and too tired to push it anymore. We grew to rather like it where it is though, and I haven’t had to sacrifice anymore of Erik’s nap times to shuffle it around. Good thing too, as there’s a box with bathroom cabinet supplies waiting out in the garage and I still don’t know where my mixing bowls are.

Sometimes I feel as if all of life were scattered piecemeal around like this, waiting to be unpacked and admired, or not, depending on our own choices and actions. The choose-your-own adventure novel happening right here when I decide to move the clock and leave the writing desk; who knows what lives will begin or end on those decisions? 

The most wonderful moments of our lives are tucked in, just waiting to be noticed and gathered up over years. A picture, a feeling, a kiss. They’re as real as the photos clipped to the gold kitchen cooling racks and as intangible as the seconds stepping steadily by in the clock. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. 

At this moment in these years, I think my eyes are open. I call Erik sweet baby boy child and I feel his smile alter the thrumming of my heart when I do. I stand on the first step to kiss Grant and some days my heart stops altogether, just for a second; just to hold that soft moment out of time, where it belongs. 

Every morning the waving arms of the trees trace their arcs across the floor. Every evening the faint luminescence of the moon ignites the snow in cool sparks and glows subtly through the white curtains. Every week I get a text from Johanna and I send one and we slowly plan around our baby boys’ naps to spend time together, sipping hot coffee or pushing strollers on long walks. The trickle of friendship seems to color all of my days by the buzzing of texts on my phone and the dates we keep for thrift shopping, eating gyros, stumbling into Toddler Time at the library only a few minutes late. 

In our last home the walls were plaster, no hanging of picture frames allowed without the express permission and assistance of the landlord. I resorted to the use of command strips. I didn’t want his help with my interior decorating. It felt odd and intrusive. The small blue picture-card in its glass frame wasn’t sticking with the command strips I’d stuck to the back of it, so I carefully unscrewed the small bracket for hanging and saved it in my toolbox. The frame was flat enough against the wall then; the command strips were still on it when I unpacked the first box of our décor in the cottage. 

It was just a guess that the hanging bracket would be in the toolbox, in the capsule of nails and tacks I kept there, but they were. I took them out, found the Philips screwdriver with the right sized head. I’m not new to a toolbox but I’m still a bit timid around it. And there I was anyway, getting a picture ready to hang on the gallery wall I’d designed. Piece by piece, year by year, beautiful things have come and stayed. Friendships, photographs, clocks, coffee tables, coffee dates, a family. 

Ikea furniture comes with the prior knowledge that some assembly is required. You can walk through the maze of assembled showrooms and show-homes with a belly-full of Swedish meatballs from their café, but when you pick that furniture out of the warehouse and put in on your unwieldy cart, you’ve got a box full of pieces, an instruction manual with no words, and one extra wooden peg for good measure. Assembly, styling, use, appreciation; all are up to you now. Nobody’s going to come and hang the mirror on the floor-to-ceiling cabinet that holds your newly inspired minimalist wardrobe and bookshelf both. You’ll never sit in the chair if you don’t start twisting in the screws, pounding in the pegs, attaching the legs. 

Life is a lot like that, I think. You can get all the good things in the world and you’ll never see them if you don’t look. You’ve got to put together the pieces. 

I don’t think life is easy. There are months when grief drives through you like the twisted sharp steel of a train wreck. You feel the sharpness in your throat and the throbbing in your mind and the heaviness in your feet. Yes, those days come and sometimes they come to stay for a while. 

But when they go again? When the sun traces tree-shadows on the floors like moving laughter, when the kiss is long and slow, the evening hands you a cup of wine, the morning brings a smiling toddler in footy pajamas sliding down the stairs on his tummy – we’d be fools not to laugh along.