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.

It takes quite a woman.

I told my heartbreak story last night to a 24 year old who’s convinced she’s about to move in with the man she’ll marry—the same man who’s two years younger and who she met at a social club in college—and who’s about to apply to Harvard and New York University for her MBA (after just finishing her master’s degree in engineering last month) and who’s crisply and cleanly ironed out, with starch, the next 10 years of her education, career, marriage, and move from Hoboken to Boston’s Beacon Hill, before the much-anticipated and carefully mapped migration to Newton, Wellesley, or perhaps Lexington once that first bun is safely in the oven.  Good schools, you know.  They count.  From infancy apparently.

A life perfectly, precisely, and confidently planned.

I wanted to applaud.  I mean, truly, I was impressed.

At 24, I was making roughly $400 a week, looking forward to Stop & Shop specials, taking the metro to my nonprofit job, driving my laundry home to Pennsylvania most weekends, and still sorting out if I would forever be fated to end up with my high school boyfriend.  Despite not seeing him since we’d graduated, I believed then in that crinkled, rose-tinted idea of destiny.

When I was 24, I knew I was good with words and good on a dance floor on a Saturday night.  I knew I was petrified of relationships but desperate and anxious for a man to love me.  I knew I was hard-working and kind.  I knew I’d spend the rest of my life devoted to my parents and my family.  I knew my address wouldn’t last long in the stifling, sticky enclaves of Washington, DC.

But, I didn’t know a hell of a lot more than I did know.

Listening to my young colleague, I so badly wanted to tell her that the years ahead of her won’t unfold like the diligently orchestrated strategy she’s just built and implemented at a client.

Because you can’t anticipate the explosions, the messes, the deaths and the self-destructions of your 20s and even early 30s.  You’re unable to forecast adultery, deceptions, newfound passions, and those alluring and unexpected opportunities that rock the certainties you’ve stood upon for as long as you can remember.  You can’t calculate and control feelings.  You can’t anticipate that moment you’ll become so entirely undone that you don’t even recognize the strands of self billowing out behind you, catching the wind and drifting away before you can grab hold again.

And there’s no escaping any of it, of course.  There’s no preparation either, other than the slow, steady build of a reserve of good friends, good wine, self-confidence, humor,  and courage—the pillars that, like Rome, won’t fall down when everything else does.

The pillars that, years later, decades later, remain, however cracked, however faded.

I told this bright and eager young woman my heartbreak story tonight, and that time, those years, that one man, that part of me—it sounded so far away.  It sounded old.  And maybe that’s because even though my life has taken a radically different course than I’d ever imagined or hoped for, I’m making it work for me now, and I’m happy, fresh, acutely present and appreciative.

She studied me, and she crinkled her beautifully unwrinkled eyes, and said that it takes quite a woman to bounce back from such blows, such bleeding.

It takes quite a woman for many things:

Birthing a child, raising a good citizen of the world, burying a parent, contributing thoughtfully to society, giving generously, moving through the days mindfully and healthfully, constantly pushing against barriers and prejudices, supporting and nurturing partners and families and friends, learning, teaching, loving, loving always—even when the heart beats slow and heavy and weary, and those pillars you yearn to lean against stand oh so far away and out of reach.

I looked back at my young and bright-eyed friend, and I took her compliment for what it was: confirmation.

I am quite a woman.  (You—yes, you—are, too.)

And that I know.

The year my mother survived cancer.

In early July, when most people were preparing for Independence Day celebrations, my mother was coming out of surgery with one less physical piece of her womanhood.  I remember wondering how she would she feel without the small cavity that held me for nine months. It’s a bit strange to think of that part of her—the bowl from which life plucked three girls—being gone, given it’s the place in which I began.

It was all very fast and surreal.  In the span of five weeks, she became symptomatic, went to a doctor, endured a few procedures, learned she had cancer, underwent a hysterectomy, hobbled home with stitches across her stomach, and only days later, on a Monday afternoon, answered a phone call from her surgeon saying they got it all, pathology came back clear, caught it nice and early, no need for follow up treatment, have a great evening.  I watched my mother receive this news in the brightly sunlit back room of Stoneyway and then cry softly, for the first time, in all those weeks.

I couldn’t hug her because of the stitches and bruising, so I sat on the hardwood floor beside her legs, holding her cold hand, thanking a god I don’t usually believe in.

***

The afternoon my mother came home from the hospital, I had just driven in from Massachusetts, with my cat and my niece in tow, because my sister and brother in law were traveling across Italy for 10 days.  My mother arrived wearing red lipstick—she “can’t think without it”—and her short grey hair spiked, and if it weren’t for the extra heaviness around her middle and the purpling beneath her eyes, she looked the same.  We cushioned a rod-iron chair with pillows and placed her in the late-day sun.  My nephews chased each other across the lawn, screeching and laughing.  My father disappeared into the house.  Grace and I painted my mother’s nails, none of us commenting on the bandages from the IVs.

Later, it took my father and me 15 minutes to help my mother get up the staircase, and later still, I had to pull the shirt over her head and draw her pants down and hold her hand as she stepped into the shower.  I tucked the covers around her swollen belly, apologizing profusely each time she flinched in discomfort.  I worried at her pain.  That first night I stared for hours at the beams in the ceiling, terrified, and confused as to why I, the youngest, the childless, the baby of the family, was charged with this massive responsibility of caring for a four year old and a cancer survivor and a withdrawn father and a heart-tattered self.  How could I do it?

The next day, I tried to make my mother’s morning protein shake just as she liked it, with all the right measurements.  I shuffled nervously around the kitchen, burning Grace’s toast and spilling my cup of coffee.  All I could think was how clumsy and out of place I was in the one place I have always felt safest and closest to my mother.  At lunchtime, I couldn’t figure out how to light the new stove; I fretted at over-cooking the broccoli.  I berated myself silently for not knowing how to make a simple soup that my mother could get down and digest easily.

The days passed slowly, each one spent organizing activities and outings for Grace, helping my mother up and down the stairs and in and out of chairs.  I made meals, ran errands, tidied, drew baths and rubbed my mother’s back, ignored the rest of the world by receding into the deep trenches of Pennsylvania, of my family, and drove here, there, and everywhere across the Cumberland Valley in search of distraction, of anything to fill even just a few empty minutes of the day so that I didn’t have a moment to process how bizarre and alone I felt.

Cancer is a strange thing—in all its scariness, it brings out the greatest hope, too.  Because you don’t survive on pessimism, on giving up; you get through the days by leaning on a rock-solid belief in the good and in what’s present.  Because you know that’s ultimately all you have, regardless of the outcomes.

Each night, with Grace star-fished across most of the narrow bed and my 20-pound cat sprawled along the other half, I laid like a corpse between their warmth and deep breaths and waited for dawn.  I promised myself, during those sleepless stretches, that I would keep starting the days full of love, energy, compassion, and care for my parents, Grace, my far-away sisters.  No matter how I felt, I would play my mother: brave, relentless, focused, strong.  I would give, and give more—I would give all of my self if I had to, to keep us moving along together.

Practicing selflessness teaches you a thing or two.  When you stop focusing so much on the “me” and extend energies to others, the most incredible result happens: the “me” in you feels better, fuller, happier.

It’s a balance, of course, but I’ve learned that it becomes a lot easier to see how much you actually have, how deep your reserves truly are, when you’re actively giving to the people and world around you—even when, perhaps especially when, you think you’re incapable, when you think you’re empty.

***

We made it through the eight days, the whole motley crew of us, and I drove back to Massachusetts with a raging fever, a weary toddler, and an overflowing inbox at work.

After Grace and I picked my sister and brother in law up at the airport, and after they dropped me off at home, I left my bags sitting by my front door, filled up my cat’s food and water bowls, crawled beneath my covers, and literally did not come out for two days.

My mother was okay.  Grace was okay.  My family was all accounted for and alright.

I had spent every last ounce of my self.  And right then, there was nothing left.

***

I have thought of that week in Pennsylvania and the dozens of emotions tied to it many, many times this year.  When I’ve reflected, I’ve felt pride and relief.  I’ve felt rage, fear.  I’ve even felt silly, because what I did was not some great feat in the grand scheme of things.  I’ve felt a soul-shuddering sadness, coupled with a quiet joy.  I have thought a lot about my dear friends who have lost or are losing their parents to this terrible disease.

Mostly, though, I have thought about my mother.

Since her surgery—really, since March of 2014—my mother has lost more than 100 pounds.  “A whole person,” she jokingly says.

When people hear this, they want to know how or what’s her magic trick, and I want to laugh, because my mother’s weight loss is the result of, well, my mother.  When she chooses to devote herself to something, there is no stopping her.  She throws in all of her focus, hard work, diligence, and insatiable need to master what’s at hand.  I have watched it many times now, with knitting, painting, cooking, refinishing an entire 1780s farmhouse, sewing, landscaping, gardening, child-rearing, friendship.

My mother has always demonstrated that if you truly want and believe in something, you must buckle down, bite down, learn everything you can, try your damnedest, and—here’s the important part—don’t give up, regardless of any stumbles along the way.  She is one of the most loyal and steadfast women I know.  She is achingly, astonishingly true to who she is.  And she tries—she might be scared, but she always tries anyway.

During Thanksgiving, we got to talking about her cancer one morning.  It was hard but good to talk about, because it’s real.  That happened.  My mother had a piece of her cut out and won’t ever be the same as she was before. And in the days that followed, I became what my mother has always been for me:  solid, unflappable, reassuring, patient but persistent, loving, supportive, and above all, strong for everyone around me.  I gathered them, my family, into my arms, and I carried us forward in the way my mother taught her girls—with humor, good sense, determination, and an endless supply of hugs, kisses, and laughter.  And I won’t ever be the same because of that either.

When my grandmother died, I remember my mother saying how she’d lost her greatest cheerleader.  But she didn’t.  Because now, my sisters and I are like an entire bandstand section sitting on the bleachers lining my mother’s life.  We can’t stop complimenting her, praising her, helping her buy new clothes (rather, a whole new wardrobe), posting pictures, telling our friends, clapping at how beautiful she looks when she walks down the stairs, marveling at her thinning frame, her high cheekbones, her small shoulders, her narrowing hips.

During the Christmas holiday, I watched her practice vinyasa yoga beside me and listened to her strong, even breath more than to the teachers instructions.

When I hug her, she fits entirely within my tight embrace.

My mother, in her mid-60s, is happy, glowing, proud of herself, present, aware.

And all I can think is how, now, I can be her loudest cheerleader, her greatest fan.

***

At this turn of the year, how fitting, how right it is, that my mother is beginning 2015 as both a survivor and a woman who is embracing each day as a new opportunity to try, to practice healthy habits physically and emotionally, and to honor the distance covered but to keep making fresh goals to achieve.  She’s still giving herself to us, her family, but in entirely new ways.  She’s reminding me, her youngest daughter, how blessed I am.

Mostly, though, my mother is teaching me one, invaluable lesson:

The only thing that’s real and that matters is what’s happening right now, right here.

The love inside of me?  Spend it, all of it, daily, on whoever needs it most.  The energy inside of me?  Put it to good and productive use morning, noon, and night, at work or in friendships or on my yoga mat or in the saddle.  The hope inside of me?  Spread it; share it.  The broken, bankrupt heart I dragged into 2014?  She’s fully rebuilt, with freshly stocked reserves, because it’s not the cracks from back then that matter at all—it’s what I filled and continue to refill myself with that counts, that enables me to love completely again.

Because at day’s end, what and who you hold close and dear isn’t your past or your future, neither of which you have any control over anyway.

It’s your right now.  Here.  This.

And that’s better than surviving.  That’s living.

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“And we can’t take back what is done, what is past / So fellers, lay down your fears / ‘Cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past / So let us start from here.”  — Damien Rice, “Trusty and True”

The road is the goal.

Yesterday, when I told my niece Grace that October, my most favorite month, is over, she sighed and crinkled her little brow, and said, “Ohh no, TT.”  Pause. “Well, it’ll come again next year!”

I do love children’s optimistic way of thinking.

After dropping her off, I drove back through Marblehead, eyeing the thinning trees, turning the heater up just a notch more to fend off the bite of the early morning chill.  Stuck at a stoplight, I watched rows of children shuffle down the sidewalk toward the elementary school, kicking through the leaves, drifted like rust-edged snow, and marching toward their day of learning.

I sat there thinking back through my month, marveling.

Because this was the October that one of my dearest and oldest friends gave birth to her first baby girl, a small and precious thing who, at three days old snuggled right into my awaiting arms and who at only two weeks old, held my gaze (and my fingers) with an intensity and focus and curiosity that could only come from her mother.  This friend and I have journeyed through sports, college, cities, road trips, relationships, heartbreak, distance, disappointment, death and its deep trench of sadness, love and marriage, and now I am watching her embark on a new and terrifying journey, and I am so proud of her and so excited for her and so terribly in love with this little person she’s brought into my world, during my most favorite month to boot.  Her daughter and I will be kindred spirits, I know.

This was the October I sat atop a horse again.  Actually, I did more than that.  Freckles—an old and apple-bellied and sweet appaloosa—and I have walked and trotted and cantered now, and I remember so much, so much!  As I trotted past my trainer during my first lesson, she called out, “Do you remember how to ask for the lead?”, and before I could even answer her, I felt my legs squeezing and my arm giving a gentle pull and my heels digging into Freckles’ side and we were off, we were moving, the wind hard against my cheeks and the sweat dripping down my neck and the smile on my face as big and full and radiant as the morning breaking open above us.  Each time I’ve left the barn, covered in dust and horsehair, my boots caked in mud and straw clinging to my jodhpurs and my legs pure water, I have thanked myself for being brave and persistent enough to finally do this—to finally revisit a passion and past-time that once defined who I was, only to discover that I am still in love with it all, and the natural tendencies and ease I had around horses when I was a child haven’t left me, thankfully, as an adult.

This was the October I made my first autumnal drive to Pennsylvania in many years.  I drove whole stretches in silence, thinking back through previous journeys, passengers who kept me company, stops I made along the way, songs that buoyed me through the lonely and miserable stretches.  I yearned for home the entire seven hours, and when I arrived, I buried myself in my family for three wonderful days, fulfilling a homesickness I hadn’t even realized I’d been harboring.  When it came time to go, I left early, the cornfields still dark, my mother still fast asleep, and I watched the sun rise somewhere over eastern Pennsylvania, the clouds thrown about like sleep-crinkled pillows, tossed across a rumpled and brightening bed of sky.  I thought how beautiful my month is, no matter where I am.

This was the October I fell in love with love songs again, old and new.  Specifically, Vance Joy’s Georgia, Hozier’s Like Real People Do, Gaslight Anthem’s Break Your Heart, The Avett Brother’s If It’s the Beaches, Josh Ritter’s Change of Time, Matt Costa’s Astair, and the two kickers on repeat lately: The Sea, The Sea’s Restless Heart and Anna Ternheim’s The Longer the Waiting. Such aching and romantic sentiments—fitting for the month that always reminds me of those I once held dear and those I love still.

This was the October I dipped my toes into a vast new ocean at work, and although I don’t know if I’m ready to fully dive in, to immerse myself in waters so unfamiliar, to test my sea legs against an unknown current, I’m tremendously proud of myself for taking those first, few steps, for trying.  Really, that’s the hardest part anyway.

This was the October I ran into my past and was reminded of the philosophy I’ve adopted this year: It happened. That happened. And that’s all.  Think more of it, and you’re no longer living presently, and where’s the joy in that?

This was the October I celebrated a friend’s surprise 30th birthday in the exact place I celebrated mine nearly four years ago, recalling my own celebration with a profound fondness and appreciation.  This was the October I watched a childhood friend walk down the aisle.  This was the October I discovered that I can still be delightfully satiated by a dinner made up of nothing but rich cheeses, a good red wine, a loaf of buttery, crusty bread, a bowl of sweetly sticky dates, some slices of apple and pear, perfectly ripened, and the kind of conversation that pokes into the deeper corners of yourself, probing those inner recesses to understand and validate how you ended up here, as you are, with this heart and mind and soul.

This was the October I wrung myself out hour after hour on my yoga mat and found that the more I emptied my self, the fuller I really was. “Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.”  I am on the road, and there’s no place I’d rather be.

This was the October of sunsets, of sailboats leaving the harbor, of loving hard again, of quiet walks through my town, of not missing him at all anymore, of poetry, of dappled sunlight and shortening days and cold evenings that sent me thrilled and shivering beneath heavy layers of down and wool, only to wake and greet each morning with an excited toss-off of the covers, a long stretch of the arms, and an eager exploration of all the day has in store.

It was a good month, a very good month—as October always is and, as Grace would likely say, always will be.