Follow your own path, and let people talk.

I don’t remember my first day of kindergarden.

My only indications of how that beginning went is a home video that, 30 years later, still elicits a loud laugh from my family.  In it, my sisters and I are talking about going back to school, and when my father asks what grade I’m entering, I proudly announce I’m joining Mrs. Carolous’ classroom, and I have my new book bag, trapper-keeper, and lunchbox all already packed.

Less than five minutes later, and after several failed attempts of me interrupting the conversation, my eldest sister is walking through her entrance to fifth grade with painstaking attention to detail. Suddenly, obnoxiously, I shove my way in front of her and in front of the camera lens and screech, “Film meeeeeeeee!”  My father declares it hard to avoid me, and the video soon ends.

Luckily, my classroom presence was better than my on-camera persona.  Or so I hope.

I’m telling you this because, throughout the past few weeks, I’ve had to make up stories to fill in my memory gaps and to feed my niece’s insatiable hunger for knowing what to expect in her first year of school.

And the big day is finally here.  Today, my niece, Grace, starts kindergarden. This morning, I held her thin hand as the crossing guard waved us through the street.  I watched her toddle across the chaotic, kid-filled playground and up the steep school steps, her eyes big and her enormous backpack creating a shadow larger than she is.  My sister dressed her smartly, adorably, in one of the many (many) new outfits we purchased this past weekend during our back-to-school shopping frenzy, before which Grace made a list of all the things she needed: shirts, sweaters, pants, shorts, dresses, socks, underwear, coats, mittens, hats, shoes, headbands, and barrettes. Basically, a new wardrobe.  And that just covered the clothes end of things.

She’s attending a small school that’s less than a five minute walk from my front door.  It is an old, sturdy brick building that’s housed thousands of equally nervous, eager, and shy children—as well as equally frazzled, freaked out parents.  When we got inside, bright sunlight poured across the high-ceilinged hallways, the well-worn tables and waxed floors of her classroom.  Everything was crisp, freshly cleaned, eye-catching, and clearly, colorfully labelled.  I watched Grace look and absorb and take it all in, silently.

I wanted to squat down in front of her and say so many things.  I wanted to take a seat in the corner and assure her that I was here, she was alright, it was all going to be just fine.  I felt like sobbing—me, the auntie, not even the mother!

Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel so damn much.

So that I didn’t start blubbering, I waved good-bye to my sister, gave Grace a quick kiss, wished her luck, and told her I’d be outside to pick her up promptly when school let out.  She and I are having a first-day-of-school tea party, complete with cookies and pink lemonade, and we’ve been talking about it for weeks. But Grace barely glanced my way.  She wasn’t processing anything beyond the next minute.

The future—even just the future of this afternoon—didn’t exist for her yet as we stood in that loud, sunny kindergarden room.

And on my short walk home, I got to thinking about why this time in my niece’s life, and these next few years of learning, are so precious—and so in need of protection.

As children, the future holds no meaning.  The present is enough—more than enough, all-consuming and even overwhelming in its awesome newness.  It fills each crack of the day such that there’s no energy for anything but this: now.

How freeing.  How wonderfully simple and sublime.  How quickly we, as adults, destroy that with our incessant plannings and pressures for the next several decades of these childrens’ young lives.

When is it, exactly, that we begin pushing kids to think and live beyond today?  When are the expectations, the higher-than-the-Jones’ bars, set and clearly pointed out and then road mapped?  At what point do we teach our children that the future is more important than the present?

Even now, I can’t help but wonder: how do you rationalize “life is short” with “plan for your future”?

How do you ensure that your “right now” is as much as priority as the somedays you hope for ahead?

This is how and why having a child in your life fundamentally changes your perspective (and everything else).

For a child, each day is a parade through the unknown.  In a way, as a matter of sheer survival, they need to be fully engaged and all-hands-on-deck for whatever is happening immediately to or in front of them.  They know no alternative yet.  And as caretakers, I think one of the wonderful things we can do for the little boy or girl we’re raising is to nurture and praise this natural inclination to look at and listen to and ask about everything.  Doing so teaches them curiosity, awareness, sensitivity, and responsibility for and understanding of their impact on other people and things around them.

I once told Grace that learning was like the beloved ocean we live alongside: fascinating, fulfilling, life-sustaining, seemingly bottomless, with trenches and species and secrets still undiscovered, such that no person, man or woman, is its master or its keeper—or ever will be.

I want to remind Grace of this.

I want to fuel her appetite for learning, for openness to ideas and imagination.  I want to help build her pride and confidence in who she is and what she thinks.  I want to foster her resolve in leading, going her own way—leave the following and the pointing fingers to others.  I want to teach her that each day is a unseen possibility and holds promise.

And because I know well that such idealism is as much a curse as a blessing, I also want to tell this darling child that the world will knock her sideways more times than she’ll be able to count.  People, children especially, will be cruel and crushing.  Things inside her will break such that she’ll be rebuilt differently.  A time will come when she will doubt everything.  So much will make such little sense, despite her best efforts at understanding.

But, those are all lessons she’ll encounter in good time.  Warnings aren’t very useful—we seekers stride past them anyway, chins high, shoulders squared.  And Grace is a brave explorer—of truth, art, words, places, and people.

I like to think I’ve already shown her a path or two; I pray I’ll continue to journey with her, even if only in spirit, for many years to come.  For now, my job is in making sure her pack is well-stocked with the necessary reserves: a positive outlook, a strong sense of self, and a certainty that she is loved and that she is the only Grace there is.  It is futile to compare yourself to others.  No two oysters yield the same magnificent pearl.

My niece—she will do great things in a thousand small ways.

I know this because she’s already taught me the most profound lesson: each day is a new chance to love richly and honestly, to live presently and purposefully, to be strong, brave, and true.

Bottoming out on top

These last summer sun-kissed hours
I think:
it is in the small blessings—

the children speckled with salt water
and sand and innocence and our kisses,
the fathers baseball-capped, burnt shouldered, and telling
tales of youth through
grey-whiskered rememberings,

the mothers brown and behind dark lens,
chattering like the tinkling ice in their jalapeno magaritas, lime optional,

and the afternoon’s arms up to the sky stretch
into a slow full-moon evening
a full moon pink
with the last, blushed, brushed lip good-bye of August.

The waves wash ashore and wipe away,
tide with tides,
our last this and that and well, maybe,
our last promises
our last good intentions
the very last of me and you and the us we once were.

The ocean, in its vastness, in its generosity, takes it

all of it—

and recycles the shards, our shatterings, the words said only to the stars,

and as I walk the shore, filling one of the kid’s toy buckets with what’s washed up, what’s left for reuse and repurposing and perhaps even decoration,
I want to say

thank you
thank you
thank you, truly

I mean this,
I really do,
from the coralled and seashelled bottom
of this full heart.

In the catalogue of days.

A year ago, I flew through the clouds with him sitting two feet away from me.

In truth, I was in flight in figurative ways, too.

Adrift at work, alighting here and then there and yet never being everywhere I was needed or wanted.  Afloat with friends, and so struggling to determine the common playing field of our mid-30s amid the babies, marriages, bad dates, new homes, moves, and meanderings down paths I had no interest or desire to visit. Uncommitted in love, given the silences and shut doors, and the dawning realization that I was very, very single, for the first time in nearly a decade.  And untethered to any one foundation of health and fitness, with my flirtations into barre and back into Bikram and then running and always my inconsistent Baptiste classes.

I was moving too quickly through it all, just trying to clear what I could, perpetually afraid that if I paused, or stood too still for too long, that I might collapse under the weight of all I’d flung into the air above me.

The other day, in my yoga class—where all the instructors now know my name–my favorite yoga teacher told us to let our yoga ground us, support us, be the pillar of our strong spines.  As we stretched and moved, I kept thinking how, a year later, I am more grounded, feet firmly planted, than I have been in a long, long time.

My job is steady and good.  My yoga practice is powerful, inspiring, fulfilling.  My friends, the handful I am holding closely, love and bolster me.  My family is healthy, supportive, ever the hands at my elbows, on my shoulders, reminding me that I’m never alone.  My strange house has turned into my home, its walls adorned with art and photography from all corners of the world and my life—in all its lopsided and creaky ways, it is my refuge, one of my most intimate and scared places, because of all its held, all its murmurings of comfort and closeness when I felt so terribly alone.  And I am riding horses, and traveling, and exploring possibilities, and writing and reading such that, nightly, I’m alit with literature again.

And love?  I feel it.  Daily.  From so many.  I like that, for now, I am quite hopeful.  That, more than anything: hope, filled.

Cliched, but it is amazing what one year can do.

In my yoga class today, as we laid in savasana, letting the practice and the heat and music wash over us, my teacher encouraged us to let the class go, let the day go, let our expectations go—maybe even let go of the person or thing to which we dedicated the last 90 minutes worth of work.

She kept repeating: “May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be safe.  May you be free.”

I almost wept, because I instantly thought of him, that great love, that one man I loved best back then.  I kept thinking that I hoped he was happy, healthy, and safe, certainly.

But, mostly, I thought how I am free.  Finally.  Fully.  Wonderfully free.

No one tells you that letting go is, really, a series of both deliberate and shocking encounters that, over time, forces us to release our grasp on that one thing, that one person, we thought we could never part with.  No one tells you that letting go does not mean good-bye—because what matters most lives inside you, always.

One year after that most jarring day, I realize that he and I may have unintentionally shared that sharp, cold blue sky that morning–but, it’s all we’ll ever share again.  Because upon landing, everything I have done since is find firm, safe ground and trust my own sure footing, and let that past, our past, float northward, like a balloon slipped loose from the wrist of my life.

We can never know why people exist in and disappear from our lives.  The universe commits to no plan, no steady cadence of communication.  Those stars, those constellations our forefathers named, bear meaning only because all the world needed a story.

I believe we write our own chapters.

I believe it’s when we show up and stay present and live truly, bravely, that we persevere in experiencing our unique happiness.

I believe we dream—we hope—because all that vastness, all that blue and all its heartbreak, tempt us, bate us, into designing our own fantastic and beautiful fates.

I never said it was easy; I said you could do it.

I used to love making the bridge between what I learned in yoga classes and what I was experiencing in my life.  In hindsight, dozens of old blog posts, journal entries, and e-mails to friends write that story well, a long string of narratives on change, on letting go, on loving, on healing, on hurting, on time passing.

When you cultivate a faith in something—be it a god, a philosophy, a way of life, your own soul—you strive to live that faith everywhere, in everything.  That’s the point, right?  And my religion, for nearly 10 years now, is yoga.

What always stumps me is how many times we question that faith though, despite its deep and intoxicating hold on our core, on our understanding of the world and our selves in it.  We forget it, or drift away from it, or turn our backs and abandon it completely, only to kneel, in stones, just to gather it back up again.

Lately, life has poked and pushed at me—at my hesitation, my doubt, and (ultimately) my fear at taking some much-needed risks. And it’s because I’ve wavered; I’ve been waiting.

And, lately, I’ve been taking to the riding ring nearly as much as the yoga mat, so perhaps it’s fitting that this morning, my horseback riding trainer reminded me of a very simple, yet very powerful, yoga lesson I learned years ago and have tested many times since and should be put on refrain in my head for the weeks to come:

Just breathe, have courage, and have faith that you’ll land.

—-

As a child, I used to take my horses over jumps all the time.  Granted, we weren’t conquering five-foot walls or leaping across gullies, but my modest two- and even three-footers made me quite proud.  I’d guided a 1,000-pound horse over those rails, and stayed atop him all the while, and managed to get us both to the other side unscathed.  That amounted to something in my estimation.

And yet, today, when my trainer began instructing me on how to get over a six-inch-high pair of cross-rails, my mind reeled, and I actually felt a wave of nauseated panic.

Sure, in the months of June and July, my horse Jill and I have grown into quite a successful riding unit, all calm, collected cantering and steady seated trots, without stirrups, too, round and round a sun-soaked ring.  I’ve worked my way up to two rides a week, meaning my legs hurt less and my checkbook is nearly empty and my horse knows the unique, precise sound of my boots.  The extra hours have helped me gain confidence and leadership in the saddle—I understand now that it’s my responsibility to have a plan, execute it, guide my horse through it, and adjust as needed along the way.

And all this means that my trainer, back after a few weeks away, is quite satisfied with my progress and quite determined to get me jumping.  “Yep, you’re ready — you can do it!” she exclaimed.

She talked me through the set up and the follow through, had me walk Jill up to the jump and around it, and then patted Jill’s rump and sent us off.  There was no pep talk, no assurances.

Our first go wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t awful either.  I was trying too hard to anticipate, to get ahead of my horse.  The second time wasn’t much better.  And the third time, one of Jill’s hooves banged against the rail.

My trainer called for me to stop.  I tried hard not to let defeat and disappointment overwhelm me as she strode over.

“You know, I’m watching you,” she began, stroking Jill’s neck, “and you’re not breathing.”

In that exact moment, I let out a massive breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding.

“You’re not breathing, and you’re not listening, to yourself or to Jill,” my trainer continued, still looking thoughtfully into my horse’s face, not mine. “It’s like any jump, in the ring or in life, Mattie.  Take a breath, grab hold of some courage, and have faith that you’ll land.”

She paused.  “You will land.  Simple as that.”

Our eyes met, and she smiled, one of her rare but warm and encouraging smiles, and I felt myself grin back, and breathe deeper, and relax into the bright morning and the strong animal beneath me.  As I steered Jill back to the rail, readying for our next attempt, I thought about all the risks I’ve taken, all the chances I’ve grabbed at, even the great cliffs of change from which I’ve leapt, blindly.  I thought about my yoga, about the years it took for me to learn to just breathe, to listen to my self, to trust that I’d always come out the other side, to remember I am my mother’s courageous and brave daughter.  I thought about how, even when I’ve fallen, there’s land—and arms, and love, so much love—to cushion the impact.

We picked up a trot, and then we moved into a canter, and when that jump flew under us, all I felt was Jill’s power and lift, all I heard was my exhale, and then the thud of her hooves moving us across the ring.  My trainer clapped, and the other rider in the ring nodded her head in approval, and Jill even tossed her nose about, quite proud, quite satisfied.

Later, after I’d hosed Jill down, we found shade beneath a big, billowing maple tree alongside the pasture.  While she grazed, I watched a little girl trot in little, lead-line circles, noted her mother leaning over the rail, observing each movement and instruction closely.  That girl sat perfectly straight in the saddle, heels down, legs firmly gripped, shoulders square, her helmet bouncing lightly in time with her pony’s steps.  She wore a contented, confident smile I know I once wore plainly, daily, as a young and eager equestrian.

And it occurred to me that perhaps yoga didn’t teach me about breathing, and courage, and trusting the landing after any jump or challenge or defeat.

Maybe I learned that lesson long ago—when I was a girl covered in dirt and horse hair and happiness and given the gift of exploration and experimentation with the promise, the faith—from my parents, from my first trainer, from my sisters and teachers and friends and fellow riders—that I’d always be okay, I’d always land.

And if I fell—if I fell, the lesson then is the lesson that still stands now:  I’d always be able to get right back up, and ride again.

All this is yours and mine and most people don’t taste it in the same way.

My horse and I had a breakthrough this morning.

I was expecting a breakthrough, given the much-heightened promise from my trainer that today would be The Day that we’d begin practicing jumping.

Mind you, I’ve jumped a horse, many times in fact, and even in a show ring—but that was years and years ago, when I still hung riding ribbons from my bedroom beams and wore nightgowns adorned with galloping stallions.  These days, my mare and I mostly keep to the comfort of the rail and spend our hours together working circles and changing leads and building a better, more fluid conversation between us.

So you can imagine my excitement—my fear—when at the end of last week’s lesson, my trainer announced that I was ready.  “More than ready for jumping!” she stated firmly, swatting a crop against her calf for emphasis.  Nothing too high and nothing too big, of course; the mare I ride, Jill, is a 17-year-old former cart horse whose hindquarters sometimes feel as wide and heavy as a wagon full of bricks.  She’s spry most mornings, but she’s aging, and with her breeding and bone structure, she isn’t meant to jump anything more than a couple pairs of cross rails.

And that is quite fine by me.

After all, I’m back in the saddle less than a year—and thanks to our record-breaking, snow-ladened winter, I missed nearly all of my lessons in February and March.  It’s taken many agonizing weeks of enduring a soreness akin to pre-season water polo training in college for me to finally feel like I have my riding strength about me again.

As my trainer tells me, now that I have it, I best use it.

This morning broke drizzling and cold, and when I arrived at the barn, mine was the only car in the puddled parking area.  Dark rainclouds swelled like bruises across the sky.  Despite my waterproof jacket and my awkward attempt at running through the sheets of rain while carrying my saddle, helmet, and tack box, I stumbled into the barn soaked and chilled and regretting that I even had a lesson on a day so miserable, so fit for staying safely indoors.

The barn smelled warm and damp. Birds, having abandoned their soggy tree top posts, stood in rows in the rafters. Muttering in irritation as I dropped my wet gear, I called softly to Jill.

And that’s when it happened.

Our breakthrough.

From down the aisle, I saw Jill’s head shoot up from her pile of hay. She stuck her nose through the bars of her stall, and, as softly as I’d said her name, she nickered.  A moment later, she neighed again, this time louder.  When I reached her stall, she stood right by the door, head high, ears forward, eyes bright, her front hooves stamping.  When I stepped inside, she stepped into me, rubbing her muzzle against my shirt, sighing, pushing into my pockets in search of carrots or apple slices.

It might seem a small thing, to be greeted familiarly, in recognition, by a horse.

But, I must tell you—it felt like the first time one of my nieces or nephews smiled at me, or clutched my finger, or cuddled into my neck, knowing I was a loved one, a trusted one. It felt like a first “I love you,” all sweetness and shyness and relief.

It felt soulful, honest, an unspoken, “I am glad you are here.”

As I rubbed her forehand and neck, I marveled—Jill knew my voice, knew my step, was eagerly awaiting my arrival, for the first time in the long string of dark, freezing mornings I’ve trudged into that barn, hopeful, eager, only to find her reluctant, slow, moving grudgingly, and sometimes acting downright pissy.  (I’ve ducked more bite attempts than I can count while tightening her girth and called her a “SASS-afrass!” on more than one occasion.)

But, this morning—moving my palms over her coat and pulling the tangles out of her mane, I felt her body settle beneath my hands, my words.  This morning, she knew me; she responded to me.

When we reached the ring, I found out that my trainer’s mother had died unexpectedly the day before and that they hadn’t had a chance to call all of her riders with the news and so I’d be on my own and should consider the next hour just a practice ride.  I’ve only ridden without my trainer once before, and it went fine enough.  But something different was alight in Jill and in me now.  We travelled like a pair of busy-bodies, the dialogue between us never ceasing, as we wove in and out of circles and figure 8’s, as we cantered and trotted and even did some pole work.  She listened to my touch, my clucks, responding quickly, attentively, and I listened to her breath, her footfalls.  We rode together, a time-tested pair of horse and rider.

As we were doing a few cool down laps, a rider I admire came alongside us and complimented me, saying I handled Jill well, and she was a tough, old horse to handle.  I smiled, said thanks, and then he trotted on.

Jill shuffled along underneath me, her ears flicking backward, her head raising slightly when I sighed contentedly and leaned forward, running my hand up the crest of her mane.  “Not so tough,” I thought, as she sighed, too.

A few days ago, during a particularly difficult yoga class, as my teacher was walking the room, she paused beside my mat and placed her hand lightly atop my back.

It was a simple touch, not a correction or an adjustment, and lasting no more than a few seconds.  But, it changed the course of my practice that evening. Because in that one touch, she grounded me. She acknowledged my work, my struggle, my presence. She reminded me I was not alone.

She recognized me.

Today, my horse recognized me.

I think life is in these simple gestures, these priceless moments of truly being seen, heard, felt, appreciated, for the unique facets of who we are, at our core.

These moments come in random forms—they arrive unexpectedly, and it is up to us to pay close attention, to listen, to stand still long enough, so that we can push past the noise and the wreckage of the world and all its perceived barriers, and, finally, meaningfully, let our true selves break through.

Leaning across the old table.

It is work to remove a person from your life.

The careful unthreading is arduous; you’re sore for weeks, months maybe.  Some days, your arms have never felt so empty, so loose and useless at your sides.

And then, somehow, in time, one day—as you’re holding another, as you’re kissing another, as you’re day-dreaming about the future and that once-great love is no longer any part of it—you realize you’ve built new muscle, new strength, new purpose for those arms, this heart, that long, strong body you’ve reclaimed.  You have, truly, a future, unencumbered by a past.

It’s been seasons since I saw you.

Yet, sometimes, I wonder if we are still leaning across that old table.

If that’s why I’ve found splinters in my elbows, my wrists.

This spring, everywhere I look, everything is clamoring for the sunlight, stretching into its warmth.  Eagerness abounds.  We were buried, darkened, for so many white, cold months.

Now, in Pennsylvania, spring buds blush the low hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, like a kiss of promised certainty: we will blossom; life carries on.

I am budding, too.

I am like the red tulips I vased and placed squarely in the center of the cherry table this morning—

bright sirens heralding spring’s sweet arrival.

———————————————————————————

Please give a listen to Leonard’s newest heartbreaker, “Did I Ever Love You.”

Everyone can’t be a lamplighter.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have an older sister.

She’ll be the one who stands beside you when you need support, and stand a bit in front of you when you need shielded, and even stand behind you when it’s your turn, your time, to take the lead.

She’ll help nudge you forward when you balk, at life, at love, at failure, at first tries and at finishes.

She’ll clap the loudest—and long after everyone else.

She’ll teach you how to braid hair and how to smudge your eye-liner just so and how to pick out the right lipstick to match your skin tone.  She’ll paint your nails.  She’ll do your make-up for special occasions, because she always does it better than you can.

You’ll look into her eyes, and you’ll see yourself beautiful.

Actually, you’ll learn that being beautiful is being yourself, because you watched her come into her own first, and when you’re ready, you’ll know how it’s done. Because she showed you, in one thousand little ways.

She showed you most everything you now know, really.

She’ll tell it to you like it is—tough love is, still, love.  Mostly, she’ll listen, and then she’ll say exactly what you need to hear in that moment, because she knows your ticks and rhythms and rocky emotional landscape almost better than you do.  She’ll cheer for you; she’ll cry with you; she’ll carry you, even if she already has a husband, kids, work, in-laws, and mortgage payments on her back, too.

(You might always envy her this:  her unbelievable strength and grit and devotion.)

She’ll call you at odd and inconvenient hours, and you’ll answer, even if you don’t really want to, because deep down there will always be a part of you that will always wants to talk to her, hear her, feel her energy from afar, enjoy her company for the brief and precious time she’s able to give it.

In youth, she’ll play with you, and during the teen years, she’ll play against you, and then in adulthood, finally, wonderfully, you’ll play as equals, neither more or less talented or capable, only coming to the board with different strengths, different scars from battles lost and won, and the best part is that now you get to share strategies.  You get to share everything, wholly, happily.

She’ll forever be where you began—because she was there, too, and really, she was as formative to your launch in life as your mother and father.  She’ll help teach you how to sit up, walk, talk, read, tie your shoes, brush your hair, climb a tree, ride a bike, dance, kiss a boy, recover from a broken heart, a cracked dream.

She’ll scoot over to make room in the bed for you when you wander in, shaken by night terrors.

She’ll hold your flowers on your wedding day; she’ll be one of the first pairs of arms to hold your new child.  She’ll sit in the kitchen with you until that second bottle of wine is empty, and the air is thick with your thoughts and worries, and the night is too close and dark, and you’re all rotted out, empty, and yet she won’t let you get up until you look her in the eye and she tells you how very loved you are, again and again.

You’ll believe her.  Because she’s your greatest truth.  She’s at your core, integral, buried deep, in such a way that sometimes where she ends and you start is unclear.

My sisters—they’re my home.  They’re my cornerstones, my mirrors.  They’re the arms that hold me and the hands that push me off the ledge of fears, and they’ve been this—my nest, and my sky—since I can remember.

They’re brave; they’re true.  They’re the most splendid women I know.  They both turned a year older in the last two months, and as I celebrated them each, I thought how much, now more than ever, I value them in my life.

Yes, I believe if you’re lucky, you’ll have an older sister.

If you’re really lucky, as in my case, then you’ll have not one, but two older (and, inevitably, wiser) sisters.

And they’ll be the echoes of your childhood, the promise of your future, and the champion of your daily efforts to be the most you can be—which is, in their sweet sisterly estimation, just perfect.

——————————————

Note:  The title to this post is from a poem called, Lit, in which the first two lines read: “Everyone can’t be a lamplighter.  Someone must be the lamp…”  Fitting, since my sisters are my lamps, my lighthouses, burning brightly, always.