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Grace and Johnny in Paris

 

I have decided not to call myself an “empty nester.” You see, I have chosen to view my nest as “half-full.” Literally, with two people gone (23 year-old Johnny and 21 year-old Grace) and two remaining (Steve and myself) I can accurately describe my nest as “half-full.”

I choose to see my stage of life from an abundance mentality (half-full) rather than a scarcity mentality (half-empty). This may seem like a matter of semantics, but to me, this distinction makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference between feeling that something is lacking to one that appreciates that much is happening.

To be sure, I miss my children with a sweet, hard sorrow. But, I treasure the experience of watching them become – even if it is most often from a distance. Yes, I wish I was more woven into their daily lives and experiences rather than being the landing zone for the holiday/in-between times. Note to children: CALL YOUR MOTHER!

But I appreciate what I have, and choose to focus on it, rather than what I lack. And I will trust that my children are maintaining the distance they need to “differentiate” (a hefty psychological term meaning to become one’s own separate and unique person). I want them to have a core certainty that they have become their own selves – not merely images of their parents design.

How do I accept this separateness from the two beings that emerged from my own body, whom I nursed at my own breast? I have my faith, my trust, my optimism, my memories, and my rituals.

Steve is often traveling or working long hours. Of late, I have enjoyed an end-of-the-day practice. After work, coming home to a vacant house (except for the eternally generous welcome from our Yellow Lab Winston) I pour myself a glass of wine. I climb the newly carpeted stairs, walk down the hallway, and sit for a bit in Johnny’s room and then Grace’s room.

The rooms are now cleaner, sparer, clutter-free, and lacking the lively chaos and material signs of the mercurial moods of adolescence. But to me, these rooms are alive with memories. I celebrate this through pictures and amulets from Johnny and Grace’s many activities and accomplishments. Some might call them shrines, but as a mother, I feel entitled to my sentimentality.

I sit in each room, decorated by pictures commemorating their lives. Each one tells a story and generates lovely memories. These pictures showcase highlights of our years together and their emerging selves. For each child I have selected a poem that speaks to my feelings for them as they grow into adulthood. I look at the pictures, and re-read the poem chosen for Johnny and Grace.

I sit a while, tired from the day’s work. I am glad to be in a quiet, serene, and clean house. I sip my wine. I look around the room and remember the often wonderful and sometimes difficult times we had as they grew up, and I read the poem celebrating each of them.

I cry a bit and smile a bit. I feel gratitude and love. And lots of hope … for who they are and what they bring to the world. Alive, free, loved, and out on their own. And I feel, in my half-fullness: resolute, expectant, proud, and most of all, curious …

I wonder, what’s next?

 

A Poem for Grace:

THE GROWNUP  by Rainer Maria Rilke

Grace at “World Youth Day” in Rio De Janeiro

All this stood upon her and was the world
and stood upon her with all its fear and grace
as trees stand, growing straight up, imageless
yet wholly image, like the Ark of God,
and solemn, as if imposed upon a race.

As she endured it all: bore up under
the swift-as-flight, the fleeting, the far-gone,
the inconceivably vast, the still-to-learn,
serenely as a woman carrying water
moves with a full jug. Till in the midst of play,
transfiguring and preparing for the future,
the first white veil descended, gliding softly

over her opened face, almost opaque there,
never to be lifted off again, and somehow
giving to all her questions just one answer:
In you, who were a child once-in you.

 

A poem for Johnny:

ENTERING THE KINGDOM by Mary Karr

As the boys bones lengthened,
and his head and heart enlarged,
his mother one day failed

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Johnny in Argentina

to see herself in him.
He was a man then, radiating
the innate loneliness of men.

His expression was ever after
beyond her. When near sleep
his features eased towards childhood,

it was brief.
She could only squeeze
his broad shoulder. What could

she teach him
of loss, who now inflicted it
by entering the kingdom

of his own will?

 

 

Gardening Picture

Since I moved to Southern California, I have been astounded by the small amount of time people spend outside. This is especially puzzling given that we have one of the most perfect climates on earth. It is a gardener’s dream.

Why not enjoy this marvelous weather and the beautiful vegetation it allows? I want to appreciate it every time I step out of my house. Having grown up in Minneapolis, the prospect of sipping morning coffee out on the patio amid blooming flowers year round makes this place seem like paradise. I want a yard that invites this. And now I have one. But this wasn’t the case last spring.

Since we got a dog a few years before, our yard had become a bit of an embarrassment.

I didn’t expect the Gardens of Versailles. But I needed something more than this dry dirt wasteland … whose only signs of life were random patches of grass, weeds and dog poop, decorated by naked wicker furniture whose cushions were long before devoured by Winston, our big yellow dog.

Even Winston went out there as little as possible. When the poor pooch doesn’t want to go out in the yard it’s time to take some action. So step-by-step, my husband and I started the dreaded project of rehabilitating the yard.

First came the removal of several trees that were so misplaced and overgrown that they threatened to uproot not only the patio, but the house’s actual foundation. Then came the laying of sod. After some tiring weeks of watering by hose, we fixed the built-in sprinklers. Yeah! I knew my time was worth more than functioning as a human irrigation system. The grass was taking root and staying green. Before long it was looking almost respectable.

That’s when I got invested in creating beauty.

I began pulling out the weeds in the many overgrown flowerbeds lining the periphery of the entire property. What an amazing workout – I decided an afternoon of gardening was no easier than a five mile run. The results were immediate and visible – a parcel of earth ready to be cultivated. I found muscles I didn’t know I had; it was such satisfying labor.

I went to sleep visualizing my budding oasis. I imagined the glory of an array of plants and flowers. I daydreamed about transforming the existing but long neglected citrus trees, and considered even putting in a vegetable garden. Oh the possibilities! My dinner table would be adorned with freshly cut day lillies. I could cook delicious meals from tender fruits, savory herbs, and heart healthy vegetables harvested from my own backyard. This was part of the California dream I anticipated when we moved here years ago.

The momentum of getting started, combined with the dramatic results of making the most basic changes, fueled my energy to create something wonderful. That’s when the fun started.

I found myself researching the best options for our climate, soil, and light conditions. I discovered the wonder of Pinterest. The Internet served as my endless source of botanical brilliance. Visiting garden stores became play. (And I won’t lie, a bit expensive). Digging my hands deep into the cool soil felt soul nourishing. I was as happy as a barefoot child in summer. Even pulling out the clumps of weeds provided a grueling satisfaction.

Then came the planting.

The tender placing of each little life in the ground and watching it grow was captivating. I included flowers for big showy color like bougainvillea, mandevilla, impatiens, geraniums, and petunias. Between the perennials and the bulbs like daffodils, calla lilly, and tulips I could expect year-round splendor. The borders would become lush with sweet white alyssum and green ivy. Even the shady spaces below the lemon, orange, peach, and lime trees would eventually be covered in periwinkle. I went wild with succulents and put mixed varieties in various pots.

I was proud to greet every visitor to my fertile sanctuary. I found myself asking a friend, “Won’t you come and have tea in my garden?” Making unexpected spots pretty through use of contrasting and complimentary form, color, and texture made me feel like an artist.

The hours flew by – I was in “flow”.

Each day’s pleasure was only softened by bits of grief I felt when one of my little ones didn’t make it. Yet, even this loss was overcome by learning what change I must make in my method. I also discovered the process of propagation. Now I was generating my own plants rather than merely buying them. This suited my thrifty nature.

My husband built an impressive raised vegetable garden producing a bounty of tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, spinach, kale and peppers. I watched him oversee his miniature crop with the commitment and concern of a Midwest farmer.

Every morning I woke up eager to go out and weed, water, and tend. I sprung out of bed on a mission. At the end of the day I strolled around it and let myself pause for a while – simply to be present and appreciate. With nothing short of love, I watched it flourish. Sitting in my garden I felt fulfilled and connected.

Carefully observing any signs of too much water, not enough light, or the threat of a weed satisfied my need to take care of something. I wasn’t just a gardener, I was a caretaker and protector – a giver of life. Not unlike being a mom. How surprising that tending and toiling in my humble little yard taught me how essential it is for me to invest in reproducing and sustaining life. It is primal.

Gardening made me realize my powerful need for an outlet for my nurturing instinct at this “empty nest” time in my life. Since the children went off to college and became busy with their own lives, supporting the development of other living things satisfies a deep desire. Cultivating my garden provided that. This is grace.

 

 

 

At forty-eight years old, I have forged through a number of life stages – at times willingly and at times fitfully. There are basically two responses to dealing with the inevitable onslaught of the next stage of life: accepting it gracefully, or raging against it. Having done both, I can say that the former opens one to the grand possibilities of life and the latter leads to stultifying frustration. What choice do we have anyway? You cannot stand still, and you certainly cannot go back. Perennial protesting is pointless.

My advice? Let yourself grieve what is lost. Acknowledge your fear, your reticence, your dismay. And then march into the future boldly: feel it, own it, embrace it.

Irish poet and priest, John O’Donahue, said it best, “I want to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” Precisely! This is the definition of grace amid change.

Every lifetime is a lesson in adjustment. Once I was a carefree preschooler; my greatest challenges were deciding what color of finger paint to use and having to take an afternoon nap. But kindergarten beckoned – the big yellow bus, tying my shoes, and learning the alphabet. From there, I became an elementary student – reading, writing, and arithmetic. I slowly learned to accept the fact that I would never be a member of The Brady Bunch.

Eventually, I was confronted with puberty and Junior High: pimples, body fat, boys, and mean girls.  Suddenly and awkwardly a high school student, exploring who I was and what I believed. Then I had to move into the role of paid laborer, voting citizen, and college student. Career choices weighed on me. What would I be? What was I good at and how could I best contribute? Soon I was a married woman, professional worker, and then a mother.

None of these new roles and stages – career, marriage, motherhood – quite matched my naively inflated expectations. What? This isn’t how it was supposed to be! But honestly accepting the disappointment of the unrealized ideal actually helped invite an attitude of joy and gratitude. Pleasure emerged.

This was especially true in raising my two children. Childrearing has presented an array of stages, from diapers to dormitories. Every age they enter has had its bane and its blessing. Age four was the toughest for them both. (For a time my former cherubs became Surly Boy and Snotty Girl). But kindergarten came along and voilá; along with it, a new equilibrium.

Just when I thought I could no longer take the madness of a particular developmental childhood trait, before I knew it, we were on to the next thing … and then the next … and the next. It was never ending and never permanent. The surprising bends, unexpected turns, and frolicking rapids were exhilarating and jolting interspersed with the occasionally serene and calm.

What helped me avoid feeling trapped in any one state of being was to recognize that it was all temporary. Nothing was fixed. My little ones were always emerging, growing, and becoming. Indeed, I was as well! In the mix, there were some topsy turvy times. My husband and I have had the blessed gift of navigating that whitewater river with them, knowing we are in God’s care, even though the ride is rough at times. Our faith in God is our sacred life vest.

And these curious creatures I birthed continue to morph into new and more complex versions of themselves. The future fills me with anticipation, and at times, concern. I could worry. But I have learned: this too shall pass. They are clay and God is the potter … spinning and shaping them. The cruel world, not knowing their baptismal destiny, threatens to thwart God’s design for them. But I claim the promise, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I am now an empty nester – proud, eager, and yes, a little nervous about my children’s fate. This is a stage that can throw the most balanced of mothers into a tailspin. Relax in … relax out.

The questions abound: What will become of my children when they are not under our roof? Will they make it? Did we teach them enough? Are they equipped for the real world? And what about me? Who am I, if not providing for their daily care? What will my future bring?

I must grapple with all of these questions and their associated feelings. A book I read in college called Passages, by Gail Sheehy*, was a bestseller, and groundbreaking in mapping out predictable life stages and ways people thrive in each. She emphasized a productive and deep “second adulthood” in middle life characterized by continual growth.

“Stop and recalculate,” Sheehy writes. “Imagine the day you turn forty-five as the infancy of another life … Instead of declining, men and women who embrace a Second Adulthood are progressing through entirely new passages into lives of deeper meaning, renewed playfulness, and creativity.”

With that mindset, it is exciting to approach my new stage of life. I am determined to stay balanced through such liminal times. I use a multitude of coping skills. This is essential.

I was glad to see our daughter Grace has learned this as well. After being home for a month she was faced with intense, sad feelings about returning to school, missing her friends and family, and facing the pressure of her challenging courses. At first there was a bit of raging at how hard it all is. However, after some tears, laments, and hugs, she decided to make a list of all the things she is looking forward to when she returns to Seattle. Smart girl! She moved through her struggle, and found her strength to courageously do the next thing.

As for me – when Grace left for college last year – I found that one way to manage my feelings was through writing. Sitting with my husband at a pub, The Back Abbey, contemplating my new stage of life, I took out my journal. I asked myself, “What am I feeling right now?” Then I wrote a little haiku:

 

Empty Nest at the Abbey 

We lounge – long at ease

Northwest winds call

Last tall bird flies free

Old lovers we smile

 

Grieve your losses, but don’t get stuck in protest. Enjoy the surprise of your own unfolding. Be well and stay well my friend.

 Crystal Cove

 

*Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehey, Bantam Books, 1976.  Also, an updated version is New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, Ballantine Books, 1996.

Breakfast in Bed, by Mary CassattI have not been in the mood lately.  First a little down, then a bit flat, then vaguely emotional. Certainly not flowing with creativity. Nothing serious. Just a stale discontent which gets in the way of doing what I want to do. So, I have missed several weeks of posting on my blog. This has disappointed me.

I have also found myself surprised by tears this week. A Taylor Swift song actually made me cry the other day. Could that be a clinical condition? “Why You Gotta Be So Mean” brought up images of the woman I had just had a counseling session with, who struggled with her children to survive years of domestic violence. Then I cried at the Huntington Library upon viewing the Mary Cassatt painting “Breakfast in Bed.” In the mother’s gaze, Cassatt precisely conveys the anticipated loss as the child looks out to the world. I am that mother years later – children off to college, concurrently relieved and sad.

It seems fitting that the post I have been unable to get going on for the last couple weeks is entitled “Not in the Mood.” How can I write about the state of being unable to write, when the condition itself logically prevents it? Virginia Woolf said, “Nothing is experienced until it is described.” So, Maybe I am only now experiencing it … because I am finally describing it. Such an unnerving enigma.

What stands in my way?

Is it distraction? There are so many other things to do. Things that are important that I don’t enjoy doing. Keeping up my house and running hills. Things that I do enjoy doing but that are not important.  Following Facebook and watching Colbert Report. Yet my soul knows it is essential to keep writing.  It is a thing that is important and a thing that I do enjoy doing. It helps me know myself and share myself with others. It allows me to metabolize my experience. But, I need to show up to the page.

Is it fear? The questions pass through me like they do anyone who struggles to create. In writing I am making myself vulnerable. Do I have anything to say? Will it be any good? Will people read it? What if people read it and it is no good? What if people don’t read it and it is good? Damn double binds! Risk looms on both sides.

Is it stress? So much is changing in my work. My job is being re-fashioned as the agency converts to electronic health records. Computer proficiency is not at the top of my resume! And now a position that I have felt confident and energized in for eight years feels simultaneously difficult and mundane. I am not shining these days; rather I feel like the special ed. kid in the back row struggling to keep up. I am tired, frustrated, and self-doubting.

Is it loss? My children have both been away at college for a year now, and I think I have handled it well. Yet, there is a quiet grieving taking place. It seeps out at unsuspecting moments. This grief has a capricious quality: rather puzzling because the empty nest has brought considerable gains – for me, for my marriage, and my ability to pursue other interests. But there is a subtle vacancy that comes and goes. It invades my dreams – lately dreams of babies born, babies lost, babies found, babies growing up only to regress again … bizarre but enticing. Dreams of becoming some mythic marsupial mother – my young stepping out of my pouch and having their walkabout, then tucking safely back in. Amid the soothing rhythm of my heartbeat, their appetites become wet again for foreign lands beyond my reach. They happily trot off, not looking back. I wait. I wonder. I worry. I turn to God, a shameless beggar …

Having now written about these moods preventing me from writing, I discover, that like many things in life, one does not have to be in the mood to write. And I received a delightful surprise: now that I have done it, I am in the mood. Writing about one mood was a stepping-stone to a better mood.

And not just to write. I am approaching something. I am not sure yet what it is. But, yes, I feel a stirring. On a gut level I know it. It is earthy and rich and good and will lift me up and stretch me. As I move through these many colored moods I discover a new and pleasant place. I sense opportunity. I am open.