Sunday, May 31, 2020

New growth in the garden

I spent much of the weekend binge watching Mad Men before it’s removed from Netflix. As protests and unrest erupt across the country, the story line of this period drama landed me in the burgeoning tensions of the mid-sixties. One episode focused on the characters’ reactions to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was striking to listen to the dialogue as the white and black characters navigated that national tragedy 50-some years ago. It is shameful how little has changed in the intervening years. So much of what is written on social media today is an echo of those struggles decades ago.

I paused the show and spent some time on social media where I felt the heaviness of retweets, videos of violent police and community interactions, and the heartbreak of black communities near and far. I noted the white friends who declared their allyship, and considered the monumental work all of us have ahead of us to make America’s racial disparities a thing of the past.  

I laced up my work boots, grabbed my garden gloves, and climbed the treacherous slope of my rocky property to get a break from too much screen time. I surveyed the Russian sage I planted last year. I was attracted to its free-spirited shape, the muted purple of a Monet painting, and its perennial attribute to spread.  

Tonight’s goal was to weed the area around my sage bushes to prevent the weeds from choking out new growth. As I tore out the wild onion and ragweed that encroached on the sage’s territory, I thought about how these plants and weeds are like the situation we’re in right now.

The sage bushes represent the best in us—our kindness, humor, compassion. The weeds are the fears, prejudices, biases, and untruths our culture has handed to us about white, brown, and black skin. 

As I plucked the weeds from the loose soil, I prayed. For the mamas of my daughters’ friends. For my elementary friend who grew up to be a police officer. For myself as I to learn how to be an effective ally for my black and brown friends. For my daughter and her friends. For how they are not color blind, but see each other’s different skin colors and hair textures and celebrate those differences.

I want to weed out the old, toxic thoughts and beliefs that were sown in me by society. As I pulled the weeds in my garden, I was reminded of the effort this requires. I thought about how it doesn't happen overnight-literally or figuratively. Just like in my yard, it is important that I don't get overwhelmed by the size of the task. What is important is that I keep showing up in little ways every day. Pull a few weeds, text a friend, read a book and talk to other white friends about what I'm learning. Over the course of a season, those individual efforts will grow into something fertile, lush, and beautiful. But only if I'm willing to do the work. In other words, my garden and I are works in progress. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Dispatch from Home

The early days of pandemic isolation have felt familiar. It took about a week to articulate it: these days at home feel very much like the early days after my divorce. Five years ago, I was disoriented by all the extra time I had on my hands without my daughter. She had been by my side for her entire eight years, and I really didn't know what to do with myself. I stayed in because I didn't have the money to go out, and I didn't want to admit how lonely and scared I was. I ached with sadness, fatigue, and fear of the unknown. In today's isolation, though I am concerned about my family's health and how the devastated economy will affect my work, I feel lighter and freer. There is some comfort knowing I am not alone in these worries or spending all of this time at home.

Long before I self-identified as a gardener, I was cultivating the soil of my heart and mind. I worked hard to make fertile the ground in which a new life could take root. I am grateful today for that toil and sweat. I am in a much better place to take on the challenges of this hour. I have practice under my belt in navigating the unknown. I spent yesterday in bed reading soothing my worried self about what would happen if I lost my job. I gave myself the day to sit with those scary thoughts and began imagining that scenario and made some plans.

Today I woke up feeling stronger, made a list of things I would like to accomplish—this blog post being one of them—and can say when I hit publish, I will have crossed off every single one of the items plus also mowing my lawn, which was not on the list. (Thank you sunshine!)

The following list are things I have done to fill my time or found especially joyful as I stay at home to do my part in flattening the curve of this damn virus.

Tulips, Daffodils, and Hydrangeas

One afternoon last autumn, I planted 60 bulbs. I had underestimated how hard the work would be particularly trying to plant the bulbs in the rocky soil up my hill and around the base of a tree whose root system was an invisible tangle below the surface. Under my breath, I had a few choice words and muttered that these bulbs “had better take root next spring!” While in isolation, those beauties did indeed appear, and they have been a comfort. We have had a lot of wind, and those blossoms remind me how life is both fragile and sturdy. Some blossoms lost the fight and ended up in a vase in my living room while others have toughed it out bending with the gales.

I also planted two hydrangeas around my patio last summer. They didn't fare well, and I assumed that they wouldn't come back this spring. I was wrong! Both plants have new growth, and I am so excited to watch how they develop into stronger, beautiful plants this year. This gardening life is a constant teacher showing me how to live a deeper, richer life.


If you told me that during a pandemic, I would STOP BITING MY NAILS, I would not have believed you. It isn't logical. This is the scariest, most surreal time I have ever experienced, and yet I do not feel compelled to chew nervously on my nails. I am sure that being conscious of the importance of keeping my hands away from my face and the constant hand washing is helping, but it's still a silver lining in this nightmare scenario.

New Pet

I adopted a one-year-old blue tick coon hound two months ago. I had been talking myself out of canine companionship since after my divorce, and then one week in February, the prospect of having a dog seemed like the right next step. I fell in love with my dog from a photo on the rescue's Instagram feed. We met her, she put her paws in my daughter's lap within moments of meeting each other, and I was convinced we needed each other. We named her Ivy Valentine. My daughter is so happy to have a dog, and still can't believe it happened “at Mom's house!” Ivy has completed the Mahoney Girls Household. The timing of her adoption feels divine. Her company is a comfort in these days of isolation.

Shopping Local and Doing Good

When I buy books (which I don't do often because, libraries) and soap, I have committed to shopping local. These two stores are next door to each other, and they are female owned. I want these businesses to weather the pandemic, so I am doing my part.

There has been such an emphasis on volunteerism during this shelter-at-home time, and I just haven't had it in me to step out my door. My introversion has kicked into high gear, and I just want to stay inside. It was wearing on me that I wasn't doing my part. In time, I placed my first online stamp order (such a great assortment!), and began writing letters to friends who come to mind. This practice reminded me that this is my contribution. Writing letters is what I DO. I tune into the comments of friends online and note when it sounds like someone could use a pick-me-up. I also pay attention to the names who come to mind, and use that nudge as a sign that that's the next person to write. Since I've been writing letters regularly, my anxiety about not doing enough has diminished.(And I'm also doing my part in supporting the USPS.)

The self-care measures I have implemented in the past five years are serving me well now. I am grateful that I am familiar with signs that I am in need of extra nurture and know how to offer that to myself. This self-knowledge is an immeasurable gift in the days of coronavirus.

Friday, January 3, 2020

An Anniversary - The 40/40 List FIVE Years Later

Vintage birth announcement

Today I turn 45. I am middle-aged. It's ridiculous to consider. It's also such a gift, a privilege to be able to add more years to this life.

I finally arrived! TWO weeks after my due date.

As the weeks and days have ticked by to this day, I've thought a lot about who I am now, and about all of the versions of me that have brought me to this point. I'm still slim, but not thin-skinned. I feel my introverted tendencies more acutely as I raise a strong-willed extrovert. I still love reading, and keep finding ways to read faster to consume more information. I am even more interested in telling stories, so I study how to do it. I am curious, but have a lack of it when it comes to what people think of me. I trust myself, and really like the woman I have become. I feel good in my skin and love the decision to whack off my hair three years ago. I love my own company and crave it more and more. I'm not afraid of being alone, and the abject loneliness of a few years ago has dissipated. I am grateful that I set out to date myself in the early months after my divorce and came to know myself and like myself in new ways for the first time in my life.

Of the things that are most different about me, it is my ability to metabolize fear. I lived nearly 40 years paralyzed by it. I stayed firmly within the confines of what kept me safe and sound—or at least what I perceived as such.

My Grandpa taught me to step over the wires that electrified the rides at the State Fair. I watched other people step on them and nothing happened to them. Protecting us from danger—perceived and real threats alike—was his love language. So I followed his advice and stuck to what seemed safe. I was the child who also didn't like Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham because if ham was green, something was WRONG with it, and we SHOULD NOT BE EATING IT. You see where I'm going with this? I took reasonable precautions to their outer limits. I went overboard on being safe and I didn't risk anything—not adventure or healthy risk. I stayed at jobs too long. I didn't travel to places I wanted to see. I stayed in relationships past their expiration dates. My sense of safety became inverted.

And then I felt things shift. I was getting divorced and turning 40 and the way I'd always done things didn't seem to be working anymore. I took the advice of a twenty-something and made a list of things to do in celebration of my birthday. It turns out that list changed my life.

I tackled the list like a military operation, or so one friend observed. I put things on that list that scared me. I also used the list to inspire, stretch, and teach me. All of that happened. That list was like throwing a rock into the lake of my life and watching the ripples widen. I am still feeling the effects of disturbing the waters of my life.

Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants that during the Blitz in World War II, Londoners didn't behave as the government expected them to. After the war, a Canadian psychiatrist named J. T. MacCurdy studied reactions to the unrelenting bombings and described his findings in a book titled The Structures of Morale. MacCurdy wrote:

We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration....When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

As I think of my life at 45, MacCurdy's words resonate. I haven't been through the Blitz, but I have navigated emotional disturbances that felt explosive. In the years before my divorce and my 40th birthday, I was paralyzed by my fear of being fearful. Working my way through my 40/40 knocked all of that loose. I didn't become fearless. I was afraid and proceeded forward with my fears in tow. And then I looked around and noted that I was still standing. That I had survived whatever dangerous, scary thing I had imagined was coming after me. The more I tested the waters of my own courage, the braver and sturdier I became.  

I flung myself off the platform swinging on the trapeze. I pushed my skinny frame toward the finish line of my first race. I challenged old stories I came to believe as truth. I baked fancy desserts, and didn't set the kitchen aflame. The list was my life. I was burning away the old stuff that no longer served me and cleared the path to head out on new adventures.

I have become familiar with the exhilaration too, and it feels GOOD.

As I celebrate the ups and downs of this precious life, I am living proof that “the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

Five years. There was a time when I was so frightened not knowing what would come next. Now I welcome the unknown and know I am up for every challenge that life throws my way.

Here's to the next five and five and on and on!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looking back and welcoming what's to come

Happy New Year! It feels good to open a fresh document empty except for the curiosity of what will fill its pages in the coming 365 days. I didn't fully embody my word of the year, enchantment, quite as I might have hoped. My bent toward practicality kept enchantment at bay more than I had hoped and yet I have no regrets about the aspiration to be enchanted. It nudged me closer to this year's word: savor. I look forward to the ways that I can embody this new word.

A friend reminded me that “We are not always 100 per cent.” It was his way of comforting me as I lamented the inability to “get over” something that keeps tripping me up. His phrase has been a mantra this year and a source of self-soothing.

My home began transforming into the space I have always dreamt of it being: a safe place for friends and strangers who need it. It didn't require new furniture or a fresh coat of paint to achieve that status. Only an open heart and the willingness to say yes when the needs arose. Four months later, a friendship is forged that I am excited to nurture and cultivate for months and years to come. It also hosts bi-monthly Girl Scout meetings, and it has recharged my emotional reserves to hear the chatter of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls who delight in each other's company and work toward their goals together.

The middle school years are proving to be difficult for pre-teen and mother alike. I've been heartbroken at times feeling inadequate in my role as her shepherd through this rough terrain. But since I've begun to see every aspect of life as a practice rather than an expectation of getting things right all the time, I've found space to learn from my missteps, room to breathe, practice patience, and try again.

I continue to feel a sense of wholeness and health that is new—not only post-divorce, but new in all my nearly 45 years. I am confronted by things that have caused me difficulty or consternation, and I am actually grateful when those moments arise because I demonstrate how differently and competently I handle them now. I see how healing from past hurts and feelings of being misunderstood allow me to respond from such a different place than before. I have watched myself initiate difficult conversations that previously seemed impossible. I would freeze and stay in a place of resentment and indignation. Now, I take a breath when the opportunity presents itself, and speak what is true for me with kindness and self-respect. I have seen relationships transform and my life feels lighter and happier.

There is a difference between responding and reacting, and in the new year and new decade before me, I am committed to responding. I have turned so many corners for the better that I see that I am back where I started, but at a new elevation with the benefit of life experience, hindsight, and the love and support of many who have loved me to this new place.

I am loosening my grip on my stubborn approach to paying off credit card debt. Being white-knuckled about anything is an exhausting, counterproductive strategy. We are going to travel more, pay attention to opportunities to say yes when life opens new doors, and respect the moments when saying no is a sacred choice.

I fine-tuned my ability to conserve and expend energy like a banker spends and saves money. I understand how time is currency, and I want to spend it well. I have recognized how my work life has become deeply stressful, and with awareness, I discovered that rest and sabbaths of many kinds were the best way to combat it. By the end of the year, I was able to grant myself these respites with very little guilt. I endeavor to do more of the same in the new year and even go so far as to find ways to eliminate the crushing stress altogether.

Time in my garden reinforced how it—and I—are works in progress, and I am thrilled by the ways I am blossoming along with my crops of zinnias and sunflowers. This season, I tried planting seeds in different places in my yard and was initially underwhelmed. Only two stalks of sunflowers grew and my zinnias sprouted but initially stopped before any blooms came. I learned the importance of knowing how much sun an area gets and was satisfied that no zinnias this year were a small price to pay for understanding that they required much more sun for future crops. I put too many sunflower seeds in the same hole in the ground—another mistake I made that taught me to see this garden as a source of adventure. I feel lucky I got the two stalks I got. But then a month later than expected and a few weeks after I'd considered pulling the zinnia-less plants, nearly two dozen zinnias blossomed after all, which taught me a bigger lesson: that all living things grow in their own time and to not rush the process. I've always considered myself a late-bloomer, but I'm now considering the possibility that I am actually blooming exactly on time—for me.

Welcome 2020! I am excited by what adventures and blossoms await me in this New Year.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Writing Prompt: I am thinking...

Here's another Natalie Goldberg writing prompt. These prompts aren't really intended to be shared, per se, so I'm letting it be what it is with little editing or explanation. The direction of this prompt was to fill in the blank and when ideas slowed, to simply write the words I am thinking again and again. The point is to keep putting words and sentences on the page or screen, and on this day in July, I accomplished that. I'm also remaining accountable to myself by posting weekly to this blog. Without further ado.

I'm thinking of how nice it is that I shared a favorite band's concert with my daughter. I'm thinking of how sometimes she talks too much, and I have to remember she's a little girl, and I need to be a net to catch all her words.

I'm thinking about for as much as I want to be touched, it's by an adult I want to be touched. She put her sweet little hand on my back as the band played and I wanted to move away. I am thinking that it was such a nurturing gesture, and I worry about what it does to her to nurture her mother. What I've witnessed of the nurturing of mothers by daughters hasn't always been for the best.

Perhaps my daughter's nurture stems from my own, and that I should be grateful for rather than resistant to, but still what I really want is a man's hand on my lower back feeling his body close as I sway to the music.

I am thinking about how I'd never heard the cello part of their band sound so strong and complement the other parts of the music as well as last night. I am thinking of how Scott seemed of sound mind and when he's in the zone how good the music is. I am thinking of Seth and his tenderness. The tenderness that gets expressed to the fans, but also flows through lyrics and sentiments. Maybe he brings the softness and his brother brings the grit.

I am thinking of the songs I love on albums that I've never seen live. I am thinking about the mirror ball and what sparkle it added to my favorite song, Laundry Room.

I am thinking a lot about how different I feel these days than I did four years ago. It didn't feel like it at the time, but in retrospect I can see how fragile I was. I was stronger then than I'd been in a long while, which only goes to show how much of a whispery shell I had become. Today I am made of steel. I am sturdy and unwavering. I know my mind and I follow my gut. When I am uncertain, I stay still until the certain answer or next right move surfaces. Only then do I act.

This feels like a superpower, this sturdiness. I am so much better able to protect my heart. Protecting my heart and moving in my own self-interest comes naturally now. I feel less needy. I don't feel dependent on others to validate or hold me up. A dear couple's leaving town when they did required me to rely on myself and trust that I didn't need other adults to prop me up. I wouldn't have known that until their absence required it of me. Feeling distant from another friend doesn't feel personal like it might have years ago. She's in a different season of life. I feel like my independence from her is a way to honor her. Like, Look at me, you helped me get to this point! I don't need to rely on you as I once did. I can hear your voice in my head when I need it, and the marvelous thing is that I don't need that kind of support so keenly any more, and when I do, I know how to give it to myself. That is a gift she gave me.

I am thinking of how with time I am able to rebuild a friendship that stands alone, that does not require someone else's interference. It is my sturdiness that makes this possible, and also maturity and has added layers to my thin-skinned nature. I take so few things personally today. I still feel my feelings, but I know they are fleeting and that the other stuff isn't about me, and does not need to be metabolized as such.

I am thinking of how great it is to grow older and wiser. What a privilege that is.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Writing Prompt: I am looking at...

In my pursuit to read and clear out a particular pile of books in 2019, I stumbled on a book of writing prompts specifically for the writer who wants to delve into memoir. The book is Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. She is the author of Writing Down the Bones, a seminal how-to for writers.


A few years back I tried to work my way through the prompts, but just didn't have the discipline and the stamina for the truth-telling that this book of prompts encourages. But on this go-round, well, honestly, I'm a better writer, a more confident woman approaching this craft. The following is another stream of consciousness piece I mined from my Page-a-Day 2019 archive. I've done a bit of editing, but not too much.

I am looking at a room that is my haven. Once filled with disappointment, sadness, and impotent possibilities for partnership, this room now brings comfort and joy and quiet. I am looking at a wall with a menagerie of memories. A plate that once hung on my grandma's bathroom wall, that with its muted colors and pastoral scene conjures her home for me visually and viscerally. I am looking at the paper tree surrounded by memories written in my early-20s handwriting—a gift I gave her as a celebration of what she'd meant to me through my life. A Christmas gift from a college student on a budget. I am looking at the magnetic board that used to hang in my teenage room in my parents' house. It displays magnets and wisps of paper that urge me on this creative journey.

Taped to a frame that covers the matted photos of two separate trips to Europe is a torn out magazine page with a tiny cabin and an awning covering the only window to the left of its door. I look at this and envision a future writing space. And I know that even if I don't get it in real life that looking at it as I write and even when I don't write, creates space in me. Creates the adventurous spirit I need to pursue this craft-love of mine. For the sake of the pursuit, with no attachment to a particular outcome.

I am looking at the race bibs hanging on my wall. A reminder that I have done hard things physically and not only survived, but thrived. I don't need to look at anything other than my flat belly with milk white stretch marks to remember my most physical, demanding feat: growing and giving birth to my daughter.

I am looking at the baskets on my floor. My handiwork as a high-schooler who took up basket weaving at a sports camp. Those baskets now hold some of my most treasured possessions: letters from friends and family through the years. The letters I prize the most are in a box on the top of a dresser I bought to conjure the woman who wrote those letters. The same woman who owned the plate in the bathroom and put her hands to her mouth when she was surprised and delighted, like when I gave her that homemade gift of memories.

I am looking at every item in this room knowing how I have carefully curated it. I have been the Director of Important Items in this museum of my life. Everything I look at has a story. And if it doesn't, it does not stay around for very long.

The longer I look at all these things the longer I know that I can also let them go if and when the time comes. Like if moving to abroad gets to be more than a dream, or if a tornado blew through this town. What I appreciate about having curated these things so definitively and early in my life is that they are not crowded out by things that do not matter. My eyes do not have to search for long to rest on something I love or for a story that these items tell.

This room brings me peace where it used to bring angst or resentment. It hosts sabbath, love, desire. It makes me feel whole where I used to feel halved and then quartered. It tells me that I could live in a tiny home and not feel diminished.

I am looking at the Pottery Barn quilt that rested on my daughter's big-girl bed when her daddy took her out of her crib and she wouldn't go back in. It rests on my bed now.

An item's story can change too. I'm looking at the truth of that. 

I am looking at the ceiling fan working at its highest speed. Employed so that the air conditioning can take a break and therefore give my wallet a break. The ceiling fan that delighted my infant better than any mobile toy dangled above her face.

My heart sees that baby's smile and it melts me still. All these years later.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Security vs. Adventure

For a few days of my daily writing practice, I found a quote and reacted to it. Here's a sample.

In exchange for the promise of security, many people put a barrier between themselves and the adventures in consciousness that could put a whole new light on their personal lives.” - June Singer

This quote perfectly describes the person I used to be. Feeling secure was so important. Probably because in an emotional sense, I rarely felt secure. The 40/40 list cracked this mindset wide open. (Imagine it. The insights and epiphanies that resulted from that list four years ago are still showing up and reverberating in my life!)

I didn't feel secure on the trapeze or on ice skates, but through that year-long celebration of trying new things and taking risks, I built a core of inner strength that I could rely on in those moments. I was able to question my comfort zones and risk something new. Each time I did, I found that I was capable. I could trust that I could care for myself and meet my own needs.

On the trapeze, I was very clear about my limitations, and I didn't push myself past what felt reasonably safe. On the first attempt off the platform, I landed on my neck wrong. I felt an odd sensation that I knew I needed to pay attention to. The whole experience was outside my comfort zone, so saying no to an advanced routine felt like the right thing. That experience was so physically taxing, and I was in the best shape of my life. I can't imagine if I'd tried to do the trapeze earlier in the year!

Historically, I have indeed put so many barriers between myself and adventure. The 40/40 list helped me ask the question, “What would it hurt if I tried this?” It turns out, most of the time it didn't hurt. The experiences showed me what I was actually made of—resilience, courage, and persistence.

Those months crossing off items on the list were a training ground for learning that security in most cases is an illusion. I have become more comfortable out of my comfort zone. Like on the Sunday morning when I realized I had a low tire and was giving the sermon at church that morning. I *kinda* needed to be there. I barely registered fear or frustration regarding the inconvenient timing. I knew what needed to be done, and I proceeded. I knew I could ask for help, and when I did, I got more help than I needed.

Later, the mechanic called to confirm the tire needed to be replaced, and I'd have to add another $85 to the credit card—something that was all too familiar in recent years. I simply expressed gratitude that I hadn't ignored the problem or wished it away and that I had a credit card that could fill in the gap where there wasn't cash to meet the need.

Now sensing adventure and staying open-hearted in the midst of frustration or fear, I am more relaxed and capable of what needs to happen. I am holding on to everything with such a lighter grasp and the universe is rewarding me.