The river flows in you. Well, all of us.

After nearly six months of storms and blizzards, below freezing temperatures, bleak skies, and a record-breaking number of weekends spent “hunkered down,” I think it’s safe to say:  we survived, and spring has arrived to greet us.

Here in New England, it was a winter that stretched long and snowy, a winter that tested and hurt and crept under our skin and filled the spaces between our ribs with an ice-white chill.  It was a winter of quiet, of isolated hibernation. Never before have I heard so many people lament about a season or ache for the rapid passing of time.

I also have never before understood fully the concept of being a “snow bird,” but after two trips to Florida in the last few months, I can safely say I get the appeal of trading Massachusetts for Miami in the dark bleakness of February.

Yes, it was a winter that we abhorred, because it felt, at times, infinite.

And yet, it is now, slowly, slipping away.  Soon, like many other things and people and events in life, it’ll be only a memory, a story of a season ago.

This past weekend, Grace and I went for a walk together.  It was just around 5 o’clock, one of my favorite hours of the day: the sun is still bright, the work is winding down, the light is golden and the shadows long, and you have all the potential of the evening ahead.  As we walked, I was talking to Grace about the seasons and about how we’re on the cusp of spring.  Can she feel that low-lying, balmy breeze in the afternoon?  Can she see those few eager buds bursting open on the trees?  Does she know how many daffodils we’ll see abloom in nana and grandpa’s garden—too many to count!  I called out, “Good-bye, winter!” and ruffled her curls.

Grace, as she always does, listened so attentively, so wonderfully curious, and then she wanted to know when winter ended.  She asked, “Where did it go?  Did you see it leave?”

And, as I always do, I paused, caught in a classic case of, “Huh.  Yep, good question.  Well.  Okay, so the mostly correct response to this one is…”

I bumbled through how, yes, we’re seeing winter leave right now, because one season fades into another, gradually, over a matter of days and weeks, and the changes are small enough that we don’t always notice them until one day, we wake up, and the world is lush and green, and the sun is hot, and we’re stripped down to shorts and sandals and craving the ocean and ice cream.

“But, where is winter when it’s spring?” Grace pressed.

And that I honestly struggled to answer.

Where does anything go, when it’s run its course?

During this winter, with its unforgiving bite, its sharp and bruising elbows, I’ve both experienced and witnessed a handful of truly sad and truly joyful life-altering changes.  The kind of monumental events that rattle every bone in your body and crack your heart into pieces, in happiness and in sorrow. Moments so big and surreal that even I, ever trying to capture the world in words, don’t know what to say or write.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about these life events.  How do you rationalize the urgings that “life is short” with the reminders to “plan for your future?”  How do you know when right now is more important than the someday you hope and prepare for ahead?  How do you stay present—and, perhaps, more importantly—push forward when the past fires a relentless attack of nostalgic “remember when”s and “what if”s?  What (and who), truly, matters most?

I’ve also thought a lot about endings, good-byes, the inevitable pain that comes with loving people. That’s the catch-22, right?  Love is the greatest gift, and yet, love exposes us to the deepest pains.  And yet, who would want to live a life without it?

There’s the argument that we are, all, ultimately alone in the end, we all lose each other, and so what’s the damn point?  (Similarly to the seasons, you never quite know when the end is, really, the end—I remember in March talking to a friend about how you never know when the last snow storm is really the last one. Because, who knows, another 10 feet could fall next Tuesday.)  But, I don’t buy this mindset.

Rather, I believe that our innate aloneness in the world is merely a footnote to the great novel of our lives, which reads rich and colorful and hilarious and heartbreaking and true, because of the courageous leaps, the craziness, the love that cements us, the clamor of experiences captured within its pages, and mostly, because of the characters, the ones we love and hold tight to, so tight, for all or as little time as we are given.

That’s the only answer I’ve come to lately, against the list of seemingly endless questions.

And so as Grace and I walked the hill toward home, I stopped and leaned down over her stroller and tapped her nose with my finger.  She giggled and squirmed.  I laid my cheek alongside hers, the sun pressing against my back with the reassurance of my father’s hand, the gentle guidance of my mother’s palm, and I whispered into her ear, “The seasons are like people, my little duck.  You won’t always see all of them at once, because they each have their own special moment in time.  And they might come and go more quickly or more slowly than you’d expect.  But, they always exist in the world; they’re always here.”

Grace smiled and sighed, contented, and I pushed the stroller on, and I felt my heart would nearly burst, from gratitude and want and conviction that I am just where I need to be.

And the first truly beautiful twilight in what feels like forever settled around us, quietly, preciously, with the pink promise of spring.

———————————

A recent obsession on repeat:  River Flows In You by Yiruma.  Close your eyes, and enjoy.

Let’s not make it harder than it has to be.

Although I love my niece’s curls and her questions, her small hand in mine, her face against my neck, what I oftentimes treasure most is her ability to keep things simple.

When it’s time to eat, she eats.  When it’s time to sleep, she sleeps.  When we play a game, it is, usually, a silly, strange, let’s-pretend-we’re-making-carrot-cake-and-feeding-it-to-kitty-cats exercise that lasts all of 15 minutes before we move on to the next attention-grabbing activity.  When she asks a question, you answer, in the best and most honest way you know how.

And she listens.  And she believes you, and she trusts you.

She doesn’t make it any harder than it has to be.

It’s both awesome and overwhelming.  Because in those moments, you catch how grossly misdirected we can be as adults, how badly we make a habit of expending our time on the things that don’t matter.

In the past few weeks, the universe has dealt me (and many around me) some bone-rattling blows.  Hours upon hours of tears, talking, testing limits, tossing and turning, and trying to answer the unanswerable questions, those black-bottomed pits of “why” and “what if?”  An exhausting and futile wrestling match with unmovable, ungovernable forces beyond our control.

And so, the other day, I stopped by my sister’s house, my purse heavy with a bag of jelly beans, a bag of plastic Easter eggs, and a package of those sticky window art designs, Easter-themed of course.  I slipped in the front door, hurried up the stairs, and surprised Grace, who was sitting at her toy vanity.  She was sporting one high-heeled slipper, an enormous Big Bird sticker, and a bright red headband that was pushed so far back in her curls it was nearly off her head entirely.

“Oh, hi, TT,” she greeted me nonchalantly, before jumping up, jumping in my lap, and proceeding to show me the three new things in her room: a packet of stickers, a card game, and a book about the Disney princesses.

The simple joys, I tell you.

I then presented her with my new play things.  We sat together for a good 10 minutes on her bedroom floor, carefully filling each plastic egg with a colorful selection of jelly beans and discussing her adventures at the bowling alley the night before.  (Bumpers buoyed the experience.)  Once the eggs were full, Grace looked at me, wide-eyed, and asked, “Now what?”

“We hide them!” I exclaimed.

Grace blinked.  “And then what?”

“We find them!” I answered, suddenly realizing that, at barely four years old, Grace might not remember in full how Easter egg hunting works.

“That’s it?” Grace said, climbing to her feet suddenly and cradling the bowl of eggs against her belly, eager to begin.

“That’s it.”

We spent the next 45 minutes taking turns hiding six, rattling plastic eggs for one another, Grace usually using her turn to place the eggs in the exact same spot I’d left them for her—tucked into the drawer of the vanity or nestled on the lap of one of her baby dolls or resting safely in a fold of her bedspread.  We giggled and feigned surprise and practiced her math—”If we found five eggs, how many are we missing?”—and talked at length about how many tricksy hiding spaces there are in a house.  We sat together while she ate her lunch, and shared a plum, and ruminated on the week ahead.

And it was all so simple: her satisfaction in my attention, my pleasure at her enjoyment, our appreciation for each other’s company and imagination, our love, and the day’s slow and settled and sunny passing.

I skipped out of that house about 10 times lighter and happier, as if Grace was the balloon string wrapped tight round my heart, lifting me up and out and above the unnecessary fray.

As adults, our compulsion to overcomplicate every last, little thing and feeling and situation oftentimes blinds us to what’s most important:  love, compassion, kindness, truth, joy.  Appreciation for what we have been given, for all we have.

In yoga, we’re told that, most days, the hardest effort on our mats is to breathe—just breathe—when, really, that should be the most basic, the most fundamental and thoughtless action.  But, our minds get in the way; our minds churn with self-critique, with analysis, with questions and disruptions and pains.

We take the simplest thread of our existence and knot it, ten-fold.

We adults do that—with breath, with love, with our own hearts.

Kids—they know better.

In my life right now, I have several loved ones who are hurting, deeply, and who are wrestling with pains I can’t relate to or wholly understand.  Trying to place myself within their struggles, I am reminded daily of how precious and precarious life is, how much the smallest gestures and attentions mean, how the most casual of outreaches or offerings can give a person the greatest comfort.  How priceless an hour of my day is to a beloved child.

And I am reminded that hurt and joy will come to me no matter what I decide to do or where I decide to go or who I love.  I am keenly aware it is futile to complicate matters by chasing one or ducking the other.

Grace will one day—but, hopefully, many years from now—outgrow her inclination to take the world at face value.  She will, like the rest of us, learn to doubt and suspect and avoid and add question, layer, and complication to what she doesn’t know or isn’t comfortable with. She will learn hurt and joy.  I accept this; I did, too.

But, I think—I hope—that if I can teach her anything, now and in the years to come, it is what she’s taught me:  that love is life’s greatest and simplest gift, if you commit to showing up and giving honestly, hopefully, with heart, and humor.

Hearts are made to be carved out.

A recent find and revelation:

My Life was the Size of My Life

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept.  It opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off    our clothes on   our tongues from

by Jane Hirshfield

My Valentines.

My niece likes to talk about the months.  A lot.

No matter what time of day, where we are headed, or what else we might be right in the midst of talking about, within roughly 30 seconds of getting strapped into her booster seat, hearing the key turn and then the ignition spark, she asks me, “TT, can we talk about the months?”

Although listing out our family birthdays, the national holidays, and random seasonal highlights felt like stale material as long ago as last November, I have a hard time not indulging this little love of mine in this simple yet clearly treasured routine.  Somehow, listening to me shuffle through the calendar of the year never gets old; rather, I think it’s become a source of comfort to her, like a lullaby or a fraying blanky.

Children are a wonderful reminder of how big the little things really are.

Lately, when I respond by asking my niece, “Okay, which month should we start with?”, she kicks things off with January.  Which I appreciate, because it is the logical place to start and because it’s my birthday month. January is a pretty slow month, though, on the whole.  New Years, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my birthday (read: immediate tangent into talk about cup cakes, balloons, and how old I am), Aunt Joscie’s birthday, cousin Reese’s birthday…and snow storms.  We get through it pretty quickly.

And we used to blow right through February, too, in a rush to get to March, which is Mommy’s birthday, which means it’s Grace’s favorite month of the year.  (She is, quite devotedly, her mother’s daughter.)

However, all of this—and our conversation about the months—changed quite dramatically a few weeks ago.  Because last week, on February 3, my newest niece, Lillian, was born.

You can imagine the build up to this event.  Grace and I would sometimes spend the entire morning of getting ready for school talking only about how Aunt Joscie was going to have Baby Lily sometime in early February and how Grace would have a new cousin and how Lily would be our family’s first February birthday and on.  We talked about what Lily would look like, and whether Grace would visit her in the hospital, and how long until Lily could talk and play, and how did Baby Lily eat if she didn’t have teeth?!

The day after Lily was born, I picked Grace up from school.  On the way home, in a moment’s pause from talking about everything that happens in July (“Fireworks!”), Grace asked when she could see Lily, and could we go to Pennsylvania tomorrow, please?  I suggested we Facetime with Aunt Joscie and the family at the hospital instead, after we finished her bath and brushed teeth.

A few hours later, laying curled together, Grace and I stared into my phone screen at Lily, asleep in my sister’s arms.  Jack and Sam hovered nearby, first shy then straining over top one another to wave and point and shout hello’s and tell us everything about their newest sibling: she was soft, she was small, she slept a lot!  My eldest sister smiled quietly in the background, looking tired but so beautiful, and content, full of the life she just brought safely into this world.

After we hung up, Grace caught me wiping away a few tears and immediately asked why I was crying.  I tried to explain that it was because I was happy, that we had a baby in our family again, that Jack and Sam now have a little girl to love, that my sister’s joy, for her new daughter, was my own, too.

Grace played distractedly with my necklace, bit at her lip, and then whispered, “TT, can we talk about the months?”

And she told me to begin with February.

*

The other morning, as we barreled through the snow-slicked streets on our way to school, Grace and I got to talking about Valentine’s Day.  I informed her that she was my Valentine—along with Sam, and Jack, and Lily, of course.

Grace asked me a string of questions about Valentine’s Day, the only holiday worth discussing in the month she’s now hung up on, thanks to Lily’s birth.  What was Valentine’s Day for?  Who is Valentine?  Why are the painted Micky and Minnie kissing with hearts all around them in the window of the Muffin Shop?

It’s a blessing—children’s propensity to force us adults to think rationally about the ridiculous so that we can explain it in a way that makes sense. Because, usually, kids make a whole lot more sense out of things than we do.

Grace asks me these kinds of things, the way she asks me about those damn months of the year, and I have to filter out the cynicism, the disbelief, the monotony, that inevitably creeps in as you get older.  Because I am responsible for helping shape the way she sees the world.  And I want that view to be positive, imaginative, creative, confident, open, and excited.

“TT, Valentine’s Day—” Grace prompted me, crumbs of peach muffin catching in the creases of her pink coat.

I told her that Valentine’s Day is a day for people to say “I love you.”  For people to remind those they care about that they’re special and appreciated and remembered.  For people to send silly cards and share silly and serious sentiments.  For daddies and mommies to buy chocolate and send flowers. For children to have sugar-filled parties.  For stores to sell pink everything.  For Micky and Minnie to kiss because they like one another.

Grace stared out the window, thinking.  I drove, thinking, too.

“Grace?”

“Yeah, TT?”

“You know, you don’t need a holiday to tell someone you love them or to tell someone they’re special.  Or to send a card, or to kiss and hug a friend, or to buy flowers or wear pink or whatever.  You can do those things every day, any day, any time you want to, my little duck.  Okay?”

I paused.  Sometimes, I know I give her more than she can handle.

There, in my backseat, covered in crumbs and curls, Grace’s cheeks lifted in a small, sweet smile.  Our eyes met in the review mirror.

“TT?”

“Yeah, Grace?”

“I love you.”

Yes, these little, perfect Valetines of mine.

On embracing the only now, the only here.

Although I firmly refuse the label of Millennial, I admit to a time when I proudly bore the label of a “Rent-head.”  Like many, many other teen-agers of the 90s, Jonathon Larson’s musical captivated me.  I knew every lyric; I saw the show twice, once with the original cast; I bought books devoted to Rent‘s creation, characters, and author.  I cried nearly every time I listened to Roger sing “Glory.”

Netflix recently added the film version of Rent to its collection, and when I saw it pop up as a recommended movie I might enjoy, I couldn’t resist clicking the play button.  The movie is a thin and sometimes painfully disappointing rendition of the stage production—I won’t get into my thoughts on Rosario Dawson’s sad attempt at playing Mimi—but listening to the songs, I remembered, fondly, how seriously I took Larson’s lyrics all those years ago, when I used to belt out, “There is no future, there is no past…there’s only us, there’s only this, forget regret, or life is yours to miss…there’s only now, there’s only here, give in to love or live in fear” from one of my favorite songs, “Another Day.”

I was young then, too young to have a past.  Regret was just a word, a romantic notion, not a reality yet.  And, given my propensity to focus on what was much further ahead rather than right in front of me, the challenge of embracing the “only now,” the “only here,” was compelling.

And the idea of baggage?  Of “looking for baggage that goes with mine,” a lyric from “La Vie Boheme”?  I remember, at 16, wondering what exactly that meant.

Now, as a single, 33-year-old woman who’s actively dating and actively working to move beyond my own past hurts and disappointments, listening to Rent‘s heartfelt songs got me thinking about our propensity, as adults, to point a very sharp and quick finger at the baggage we claim holds us back.

The symptom of baggage is as common to relationships as sniffles are to a cold.  In friendships, courtships, and even professional environments, we label one’s limitations, actions, fears, and just plain bad behavior as “baggage” as quickly as we observe eye color, hair length, even the spattering of freckles across the nose.  We do this to others—”Oh, yeah, he has some serious baggage”—as much as to ourselves.

And yet—I have begun to wonder if this negative assessment is, in fact, mislabeling what is quite simply the past you have not let go of or accepted.

How many of us, really, have come to happy terms with the decisions that led us forward, backward, or held us still, and have no regrets, no histories harbored with ill or poisonous will?  How many of us have, fully, healed from old hurts, and in a way that hasn’t rendered us scuffling along with a permanent limp?  How many of us use those past moments as excuses, crutches, and scapegoats for rationalizing today’s behaviors?

Most of us, I would wager, carry a heavy and unhappy load of the very decisions, actions, losses, and experiences that have shaped who we are.

I have been thinking a lot about baggage recently.  It’s a hard topic to avoid when you’re delving back into the exercise of opening yourself up to the whirlwind of hope, rejection, hurt, happiness, and frustration that is Dating. As you compare the stranger you’re clinking glasses with to the last man you loved dearly or the last relationship that failed miserably, it’s natural for past experiences—good or bad—to inform your thoughts and judgments, no matter how much you’ve moved on and let go and forgiven.

And that’s all okay.  Right?  Right.

I say this because I worry I have been giving my good past a bad name by thinking of it as “baggage.”  After all, baggage is really just moments, snippets, and people of your life.  Why slap such a negative connotation to what and who informed the woman I am today, for better or for worse?  Wouldn’t it be more productive to acknowledge all the scraps and scars and sentiments shared as formative additions to my present self, say thank you, and focus on the right now instead?

Yes, men have hurt and disappointed me.  I have hurt and disappointed me.  Friends, family, colleagues—many have hurt and disappointed me.  And yet, I would not know how to love had I not given my heart early, eagerly—I would not know, today, the risk of not giving, not trying.  And I would not be so confident in my self, my abilities, my goodness—personally and professionally—had I not confronted things and people who challenged the very real self I showed.  Those moments of confrontation were not pleasant—but what of growth is?  Growth signals change, however microscopic.  And change often isn’t easy.

There comes a point at which we can no longer place blame or point fingers to our past, our baggage.  To continue to do so is cowardly, lacking faith, perhaps even lazy.  We are not prisoners to the past unless we allow ourselves to be hobbled by our own history.

I spent a lot of 2012 and 2013 mucking around in the past.  This year, I am determined to focus on right now.

It takes courage, I think, to live in the present.  We grant the past a longing gaze of rose-colored nostalgia and the future our far-flung hopes, but the present?   We tend to wish for it to pass quickly and as painlessly as possible so we can just “get there already.”

The present can be uncomfortable, ugly, unruly.

But, it can also be beautiful, raw, honest.

And, ultimately, how we choose to live and love now is what determines our fate.

Recently, I went on the first good date I’ve had in a long while.  We laughed and ate salty hot dogs and shared stories and flirted over froth-rimmed beer glasses.  He told me I am sweet, and pretty, and looked at me in a warm and wanting and hopeful way and asked to see me again soon.  When we parted on a street corner, we both were grinning.

And as I walked to my car, slushing through city-blackened snow and bracing against the unforgiving February wind, instead of remembering my former love with that old, familiar ache, I remembered something he said to me in a moment of adoration and appreciation.  He told me, simply, that I was one of the great ones.

On an icy corner of Cambridge, my grin for a man I’d just met turned into a full-faced smile with that one, treasured reminder, given years ago, by a man I once loved.

Because I choose to remember this: the good.

Because I would rather my present be informed by the positive, not the negative.

I would rather my actions now be driven by what makes me stronger, not what broke me back then.

I would rather devote my energies and attentions on the promise and people of today than exhaust myself by picking through one thousand spent yesterdays.

I wrote a letter to you, over the ocean.

I have not written you in so long.  Years, actually.  It’s strange to think that.

I wonder so many things, as those months stack atop one another, like the bricks of a fort, carefully constructed, respected, a wall stood in front of but never scaled.  I wonder if you are still writing, if you are still lonely; I wonder if you have lost more of your hair, if you have deeper wrinkles; I wonder what book you are reading.  I wonder what country you last visited.  I wonder, though not nearly as often as I used to, whether you wonder of me.

I used to worry that healing from my heartbreak would mean I was over you, that you would be lost.  That thought—of not loving you—terrified me.

You should know that I understand now—the process of letting go actually cemented you in me, as a part of my past.  You fit there well.

In this way, though, you will never see me fall in love with the man I will spend the rest of my life with.  You won’t watch me age and settle deeper into the woman I push myself to be each and every day.  That, there, is the worst part—missing that wonderfully interesting and exciting evolution of someone you love, and cheering and supporting and challenging, and hoping for them along the way.

A healed heart creeps up on you with the same surprising urgency and intensity as a broken heart.  Suddenly, you realize:  I am altered.

I am almost there.  I can taste it.  The slow but steady building of the confidence, the courage, the agreement to give and go at it again, the faith in effort and honesty.

I don’t miss you anymore.  I’m sorry.

I do remember you fondly.  I wonder of you. I wish for good things.

For you, yes, but mostly for me.

And that’s as it should be.

On anniversaries.

When I first launched this blog in January of last year, my intent was small but clear: find and create a space void of judgment, sadness, and the past and fill it with stories, memories, reflections, and curiosities of today, now, this new slice of my thirties.  After maintaining another blog for five years and watching its tedious decay, the idea of  a clean, white-washed place to store and share my writing was wonderfully appealing and freeing.

WordPress kindly reminded me of my one-year anniversary with By Mattie today, and all those great intentions from last January came flooding back with a smile and a little shake of the head.

Because, well, although I launched this here blog with high hopes of writing more, sharing more, and connecting more, you never can quite control the outcomes of anything, can you?  A blog is, like many things, what you put into it.  And, admittedly, I haven’t put as much into By Mattie as I originally thought I would. 

Instead, I’ve put that time into life.  And captured what I could along the way.

Such as a best friend visiting my old apartment in Washington, DC—the very home that housed my early twenties and all its havoc.

And that empowering moment when I realized I need—and can be—my own great cheerleader again.

And those precious, perfect moments with my niece: telling her why you need to believe in what you can’t see, and why cash registers are, really, the best childhood toy (you want to debate this?), and you don’t always have to be happy, and endings can be beginnings, and sometimes, I am no one’s but hers. Oh, and that October really is the best month of the year.

Or that few things matter or mean more than honoring, cultivating, and celebrating the generations of family and the comfort of going home.

Or that April day most New Englanders will never forget, when ash and fear and madness littered the streets of Boston.

And that July trip to Uganda, a long, exhausting, humbling journey that reminded me why traveling is learning.

And, always, annually, that seaside moment of time, when my family, the legacy of us, is bound tight together again by the traditions and the joys and the hopes we hold for one another.

And that pause at year’s end, that flip through the calendared catalogue of events, highs, and lows.

And that moment I couldn’t throw you away, although later, I did, in my own way, when I realized my sleeves bore no more heavy hearts, and my words were paper tigers, shredding the streets of Montreal and the other cities of our past—

—because the bankrupt heart, yes, that one there, no longer needs an audit trail of our becoming and our undoing.  I am quite pleased to report she is now back in the black and well on her way to garnering record profits again.

Because it would not be any space of mine if there was no heart, no love.

And that’s all a blog really is anyway.  A space for a writer’s truth and whim and inspiration.  A chronicle of fact and an exploration of fantasy.  An outlet, a beginning, an outreach sometimes uncomfortable and oftentimes exhilarating. An exercise of honest effort.

It is what we put into it, what we make it.

What, really, of life is any different?

So, to another year of putting the words down, and making them stick.