Bundled up in jeans, two shirts and a sweatshirt, I step out into the cold. The morning sky is moody, but it hints at brightening… so I’m going with that.
It’s been a few days.
I’m missing the fragrance of boxwoods, a scent I associate with my grandfather and special occasions in childhood, and also the house I once called home.
But no matter. I’m pleased to see the annual exuberance of wild, overgrown bushes nearby with their abundance of berries just waiting for use in December decorations.
If anything, the brittle air is reassuring. Warm, wet weeks have finally yielded to a solid stretch of sunny days and clear nights, and I only wish I could take greater advantage — especially of these glorious, invigorating mornings.
Silence Is a Shape-Shifter
In the quiet, in the desire for quiet, in the thick of the quiet, I’m grasping for certainties. It seems to me I’m always grasping for certainties, though my rational mind insists they are rare.
Here’s one certainty I can count on despite its contradictions: Silence is a comfort zone, a companion, a precious gift. But we need to be wary of its power as a shape-shifter, its heft as an obstacle.
I tell myself that resolution to open-ended questions will arrive in its own time. But that little aphorism seems as faulty and deceptive as it is accurate.
What if hovering inside silence is a justification for indecision? What if quiet is little more than attachment to inertia? What if toning down the dialog, internal as well as external, is a means to avoid taking risk?
In my renewed search for stillness, I tell myself I’m trying to zero in on “what’s next.”
But what if I’m fooling myself? What if it isn’t about finding myself but rather, about running away?
Our Children, Ourselves
I remind myself to count my blessings (dutifully). I remind myself to focus on daily pleasures. I turn to images from other days — old photographs that spark evaporated dreams — and I try to convince myself that it’s “okay” to take a rest.
It isn’t that I’m looking back exactly; I seem unable to look forward.
After college and before I became a mother, it was all about me — my ambitions, my learning, my friends — the “self” I was trying to create and from that self, a life that would mean something.
This was no small task after a confusing childhood in which everything seemed to be about my mother. Separating myself from the role of bit player in her dramatic scenes required decades of working my way out of the shadows. Over time, I realized that I could “own” myself, though I much preferred not being on center stage.
Holiday Parenting Pleasures
When I became a parent, I couldn’t have imagined the depth of worry, the breadth of tedium, the ungodly expense, the unrelenting fatigue… nor the constancy of joy that I would experience in motherhood.
I understood my own mother more. And, I understood her less.
When my nest was full, each December brought a flurry of activities — there were gifts to be made or purchased then wrapped, whatever the budget to be reckoned with that year. There were school concerts and performances, and hauling kids back and forth to gatherings. There was playfulness and anticipation; there was greenery to be cut from the yard for the mantel; there were small cakes and pies to be baked not only for us but for neighbors; there were candles and ornaments to be unboxed and laid out; there was a tree to be chosen and its price, negotiated; there was a sense of family that spilled over noisily in every untidy, imperfect, unconventional corner of the house. And naturally, all this “goodness” came with its share of stress.
Somehow, this year, my holiday get-up-and-go got up and went. Or rather, it’s yet to awaken in any tangible fashion. I’ve managed to fill one antique Italian Spode bowl with a few ornaments and pine cones. A single poinsettia picked up at the grocery store sits among bills in the center of the kitchen table.
For now, I count the days until my boys will be home.
What If We Don’t Know (Yet) How to Lighten the Load?
My rooms are in their usual state of disarray, though little by little they’ve been straightened up thanks in part to my younger son. While I may see the psychological comfort in a certain amount of mess, the advantages of more organization have never been lost on me, especially working and living in the same small space.
I’ve been trying to lighten the ambiance for years. I note progress, but I’m not there yet.
Although shedding and streamlining remain ongoing objectives, I’ve always been fine with books and pictures everywhere you look. Some of the paintings and drawings are the work of friends, and many, happily, are by my younger son. They include a series of portraits he did at 15.
Writing has been my self-definition. Writing has been my personal therapy. Writing has been the ground that I stand on, and I begin to believe I might like to let go, to float, even to drift.
As a solo parent, there was purpose in every day spent raising my children. In that purpose, I understood that my vitality, determination, and guidance were essential to the machinery of our household. Anything else was irresponsible. No letting go, no floating, no drifting.
On Absence and Presence
Sentimentality is a frequent visitor in certain seasons. I am unabashedly sentimental at this stage in life, and no more so than at the holidays.
In the carefully constructed quiet I worked so hard to build, I recognize that there is quiet that solidifies as voices empty. Its shape and mass are different than the stillness we intentionally seek.
I’m feeling fragile, vulnerable, abandoned.
These are uncomfortable feelings, but we know they won’t kill us. I’ve lived through each of them before — starting over after divorce, starting over after the loss of my home, working through the grief after the passing of my parents, and working my way back to health after surgery more than 10 years ago.
That words have abandoned me is an odder phenomenon. That I do not wish to write — anything — is meaningful, though I’m not sure how. I don’t know if my absence of words — not in my head, but on the page — is paving the way for the presence of something else.
Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Maybe it’s a path to freedom I can’t yet define.
That I long for reality over virtual virtuosity is also meaningful, and perhaps, given how I’ve earned my keep for the past decade, not surprising. Some of this yearning is a newly discovered desire for more intense merging of the sensual and the emotional. I feel as if I’m being presented with colors in my box of Crayolas to which I was formerly blind.
That writing about living was easier than ‘living’ itself is an active, proximate memory; the sensation lingers and I know the reasons why. But I find myself staring at… nothing. Nothing I can quite make out, that is. I am less at a crossroad than a precipice, but we’ve all seen times when we don’t know where we are, even if we know who we are. So we pause, we feel, we think; we orient.
Celebrating Each Day
I am not depressed. (I am familiar with depression; that isn’t where I am.) I am not weak; on the contrary. We can be fragile, vulnerable and strong.
On any given day I have much to be grateful for, but how easily we take the basics for granted, especially those of us dwelling in our “first world problems.” We don’t consider the necessity of choosing between the rent and a doctor visit, the mortgage and a prescription, our kids’ needs and our own. We assume that we and our children are safe.
We also assume the ability to wash our clothes and dress ourselves, to stand in the shower or in front of the coffee maker, to empty the trash or heat leftovers in the microwave, to sit at the dinner table and chat for a half hour, to move from room to room without a second thought, or to settle into a comfortable position for sleeping.
On any given day I can usually pinpoint a reason to be happy — the health of my children, the pleasure of a gorgeous line of prose, the delight in a friendly online exchange.
The December holidays.
I have recent accomplishments to celebrate. They’re small victories, to be sure — a long-term project completed and a personal (weight loss) goal met. Yet all I can drum up in the wake of these achievements is a rather dry and perfunctory satisfaction. Nor can I crank up my enthusiasm for the trappings that are usual this time of year. Certainly, world events have a hand in my dampened spirits, but that isn’t all. I’m preoccupied by the changing seasons — a midlife crisis at last? — and stirred by a desire to experience rather than describe.
Restless and Wanting to Rattle the Cage
I also find myself perplexed by my continued craving for quiet and a persistent, simultaneous, physical restlessness.
This last no doubt is exacerbated by the happenings of my past four months; behind my wizard’s curtain — a woman who works and a woman who writes — is the merry-go-round of doctor’s appointments, physical therapy sessions, and a daily battle with chronic pain that has yet to be won.
In the process, stores of energy are depleted, bouts of frustration are frequent, and the draining of funds, inevitable.
These past three days I’ve been doing better. Significantly better. I don’t know why, but God knows I’m thankful. However long this improvement lasts, I’m thrilled to rattle the cage of my body.
And so I bask in everything beautiful that I see out my window. I gaze at the images that hang on my walls. I look forward to seeing my sons in two weeks.
By then, I hope for the aromas of baking in the kitchen (my boys will help); for the laughter and love that are the essence of meaning (no need to search further); and quiet be damned! I’m guessing there are lessons in my empty nest that I have yet to master, choices I have yet to perceive, and conversations to return. This time, I believe my sons will furnish the lion’s share of vitality, determination and possibly, guidance.
Detail of mixed media painting, Dennis Campay. All other images, drawings and paintings courtesy of my son.
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