Spare Change

The young man stood on a median strip in Minneapolis, near the Walker Art Center. Traffic to the left was veering onto Lyndale. Cars on the right were heading toward Hennepin. He leaned against the stoplight. Well, leaned would be too strong a word. His back made only minimal contact with the yellow column. His body looked like a giant backward “C”, with his legs a couple of feet out from the base and his shoulders exaggeratedly slumped forward. Most drivers probably assumed he stood in a relaxed stance, but most drivers probably weren’t looking very long. It’s not Minnesota Nice to stare, you know.

Relaxed was how I perceived him at first, too, with the kind of peripheral vision that wanted to look but not see. The kind that doesn’t want to be caught looking. The kind that wants to convey an attitude of worldliness or, even better, invisibility, like the child’s game… if I can’t see you, then you can’t see me. But the light turned yellow about the same time I spotted him, and I knew that I’d be stopped at the intersection. Right next to him. Right where it’s so damned hard to pretend not to see.

He was maybe 20 years old. Tall and lean. His face was clean shaven except for the mustache that didn’t age him much. He wore blue jeans and a black t-shirt with some kind of artwork on it. His small cardboard sign was no more than 8 by 12 inches. It was full of writing, but all I could make out was the first word: “HOMELESS” in open-block letters that struck me as artistic. His blond hair was parted neatly down the middle. Long. Past his shoulders. Shoulders that curled more than you’d expect to see even from an awkward, shy adolescent; he held them away from the metal pole as if he didn’t deserve its support. His head continued along the curve of his back and hung forward slightly as well. And then his eyes. I noticed his eyes too. That’s how much I’d given up pretending we weren’t within arms reach of each other. They focused on the ground a few feet in front of him. Like he wanted to pretend he didn’t see any of us, either.

I don’t give money to the cardboard-sign holders. The admonitions ring in my head… they’re only going to spend it on booze or drugs. Maybe so. I only see them from the insularity of my car. I’ve never known any, never actually talked to them. They don’t tend to write books or get interviewed so I don’t know their stories. But today, not pretending, my heart saw something familiar and it really didn’t matter if he was homeless and needed money for the simplest necessities or if he would head to a drug dealer or liquor store at the end of the day. I needed to show kindness. I needed to do something that felt like love.

Still, I hesitated. Years of training are hard to break, even with a little voice shouting in your head. I reached for my purse and told myself that if I could get to my cash before the light turned green, I would give it to him. In my rearview mirror, I saw the man in the truck behind me hold his arm out the window and the young man moved toward it. He stood there for what felt like too long; doing what? He didn’t look like a conversationalist. What’s the etiquette for begging? What is the prescribed time for listening to someone in exchange for their folded bill? Damn… move already. Come back. The light is going to turn. I want to give you this. Finally! He walked to the front of the median, his back to me. I got his attention. “Excuse me.” He turned and I held my money out the window.

I looked directly at him. I saw his eyes looking down and away, his shoulders still shrinking inward on himself, his hair falling away from his face as he leaned toward my car. I know why I did it. Why I had to do it. I even told him as he took the money from my hand…  even as the light turned green and the cars behind me began edging forward. “You remind me of my sons. I love them. Take care of yourself.”

I pulled away, thinking of my sons… the elder with his long blond hair and whispy indications of a mustache; the younger with his lean, wiry build; their sensitive eyes and artistic endeavors. They haven’t wanted to see me in over eighteen months, and the strangest things can make me miss them. Like a young man on a median.

So, I did something I’ve never done before because in an unguarded, unexpected moment I was reminded of the many ways I can no longer love my children, the ways I am prevented from taking care of them or even knowing how they are.

I want that young man to be okay. I want him to know that mothers love their sons, that we worry about them and miss them and wish that we could fix everything that aches in their heart and troubles their minds. I want him to know that he’s not alone, no matter how it seems, because somewhere there’s a woman who carries him in her heart forever. A ten-second sentiment probably isn’t going to do that, not even when accompanied by a ten dollar bill. But I can hope.

I’ve gotten so incredibly good at hoping.


Three Words

“In three words I can sum up what I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” 

                                                  ~Robert Frost

Life goes on.

When times are easy, life skips like a perfectly flat stone across a perfectly still lake. Like a child whose heart is full of an orange and yellow song.

When times are hard, life skids and weaves like a car on black ice. Like a word said in haste and anger and regret.

Sometimes life goes on like a teardrop hanging from the corner of an eye already full of tears. Sometimes like a laugh that tickles on its way out and bounces across the air like a musical balloon.

Life goes on and does not stop. Not for a joy that takes your breath away, nor for a sorrow that does the same.

Savor every spice of it on your tongue; remember every sweet, violent, marvelous lyric it sings; memorize every color in every burst and bubble.

This is your life. Take it by the hand and do your best to keep up. Because, no matter what, life goes on and it’s up to you whether you are dragged behind or dancing alongside.


Mothering & Moving On

Mothering. A profession at once maligned and exalted. Mothers are predominantly blamed for what goes wrong in children’s lives and grossly overlooked when things go marvelously right. We set aside one day a year to glorify their work, then leave them to fend for themselves the other 364. Even in your children’s eyes you go from being saintly (childhood) to beyond redemption (adolescence) to invisible (young adult). If you’re lucky, you live long enough for them to become parents themselves and you become wise (and forgiven) to them at last.

I was a full-time mom for 20 years. If someone asked me today if they should have children, I would honestly say no; not unless you are willing to shelve every other aspect of your life, have your heart broken repeatedly, be questioned, dismissed, and disregarded,  and postpone dreams, goals and plans for years to come. I figure if they hear the worst of it and decide to parent anyway, they may actually have what it takes to do the job well and with their sanity intact. The truth is I’m like those Oscar-winners who tell interviewers that they live for acting but discourage their children from the same pursuit. Because contrary to my apparent cynicism, I loved what I did unequivocally; I would go back and do it all over again in a heartbeat.

There is no “going back” though and  thank goodness for that. Everything has its season. Despite how deeply fulfilling the work was, I am moving on. The time for mothering as I knew it is past. The time has come to create something new. I can, however, look to my years as a mother to illuminate my future. Mothering used my strengths and my passions. It engaged my heart, mind and spirit in ways little else ever has. The work inspired me, nourished my soul, and stretched and tested my abilities, assumptions and fortitude. It was the most rewarding experience of my life. These are the characteristics of the life I want. These are the signposts that I am on the right path.

I let my heart guide me into and through motherhood. I know I can trust it now to lead me again into a life that I will look back on and say “I would do it again… in a heartbeat.”

Like Her

I laugh like her.

Only recently have I noticed that I hear my mother’s laugh in my own. Not always but, when it comes from deep in my throat and is especially spontaneous and heartfelt, it’s there. It surprised me at first. I’d never noticed I laugh like her before, and I probably didn’t. It’s developed since she died nearly eight years ago and it pleases me. Not because I miss her, though I do, but because I hope that sharing her laugh means I am like her in other ways as well.

People remember her laugh. It was distinctive and frequent. It was the frequency people remarked on most of all at her memorial service. “Judie was always laughing. She always had a good time. You could always tell it was Judie.” She could be silly and spontaneous.It seemed as if her body laughed, not just her voice. She was a slight woman, standing at 5’1″, but when she laughed she filled the room. She made people feel good and it’s why they remembered her laugh. She participated in their happiness; helped to create it. What a gift! I would like to be like her in that.

By my teenage years I recognized that my parents struggled deeply in their marriage and their eventual divorce surprised no one.  In spite of the difficulties, she maintained a sense of humor, of balance, and of purpose.  The effort it must have taken, when it would have been so much easier to focus her energy on her problems. What I didn’t appreciate until much later was the way she also managed to create such normal childhoods for us despite her personal burdens. She didn’t turn her frustration on us; she created happy memories for us instead. Simple things really, consistently nurtured and attended to, that built a foundation of stability. She handled her stresses with a quiet, private dignity and enduring diligence. I’m humbled by how she managed it all. I would like to be like her in that.

She supported me in everything, even if it looked like a mistake from where she sat. Her approach was understated and  I sometimes wish now that she had spoken up, both in encouragement and in warning. But that wasn’t her way. She kept her assistance at the ready and her thoughts to herself – like when I moved back to Minnesota from California. I planned to drive the 2,000 miles alone. She didn’t argue; she  bought a one-way ticket, showed up at my door and drove back with me. During the 15 years she witnessed of my marriage, she never suggested it was a mistake. Only since her passing have I learned that her concerns for its condition grew over the years. She was right about my marriage, although I would have denied it at the time. She had the courage to let me do what I was bound to do and still be there for me unquestioningly. She held her tongue and extended her hand. I would like to be like her in that.

In remembering her, I focus on the strengths although I am aware there were weaknesses as well. There is no point in pretending otherwise. As a child, I adored her. As a teenager I disdained her. As a young adult I neglected her. Thank goodness I have at long last reached the age where I can see my mother with compassion, charity and forgiveness. She was flawed and beautiful. I hope I’m like her.

Today my mother would have celebrated her 68th birthday. Somehow I  think that wherever she is, she’s laughing …  because that is what she did, often and well.

The Difference

I wanted this day to matter. It didn’t have to be monumental or “important”. I didn’t have to accomplish great things or even check off multiple items from my growing to-do list. But I wanted to feel like I lived it on purpose. That every choice had intention behind it… whether it was to savor a bowl of chili, fold laundry or take a walk.

This is a familiar feeling. The urge to do something is compelling and frustrating. It’s just so tempting to fill time and make the easiest choices rather than the most satisfying ones. I’m especially conscious of this because I am living away from home. The normal distractions are missing. There is no pre-exisiting agenda; no familiar tasks to attend; no casual preoccupations. At the end of the day I can’t pretend that I’ve accomplished anything unless I really have. But I want more than mere “tasking” or just keeping busy. I want to feel, at the end of the day, that I was really in my life.

I woke this morning feeling adrift, until I remembered that no one but me is going to captain this life of mine. I can stay adrift or I can set a course, but I mustn’t fool myself into thinking that the quality of my day is somehow outside my influence. And oddly enough, the simplest things can be satisfying when I bring my full attention to them. That bowl of chili? It was a craving fulfilled and I was aware of every bite. The laundry? A necessary task done with enhanced focus and appreciation.

In a moment of clarity I remembered who is empowered with the attitudes and the abilities to shape my life. Today, although I did nothing out of the ordinary, it felt like my life mattered. The difference, I realized, is Me.

Done Pretending

I pretended to be small for a good portion of my life. But that’s all it was: pretending. I even pretended I wasn’t pretending, as we must to make the pretense seem real. However, like all games of make-believe, it had to yield eventually to reality. In my case, it exploded.

Over the years, I developed a variety of behaviors to maintain the illusion of my smallness. I denied my instincts and emotions. I accommodated and acquiesced to requests without asking what I wanted for myself. I postponed my dreams, big and little. I looked to others for confirmation of my choices. I took on the emotional work of others. No one forced me to do these things; in fact, they were well-received. They passed as nurturing. In hindsight, I realize I took them to extremes and they justified and protected my fear of living fully.

We all learn that while a large object can be compressed to fit into a small space, it will exert an internal pressure on the container that holds it. In other words, it risks bursting the seams. It turns out my spirit was equally unaccommodating to being confined. Sooner or later, the myth of my smallness had to give way to the reality of my substance. Though there were minor indications of the coming breaking point, I compare what happened to the rupture of a dam: the effects were immediate, raw and uncontainable. It seemed for a while that I lost everything and I struggled to ride the waves that followed. Life as I’d known it changed completely. I guess it had to; truth and illusion cannot coexist. On some instinctual level, I had finally chosen my reality.

It seems sadly ridiculous to me now that I would be so afraid to embrace the strength, talents and passions that I sensed within – but the young woman I was felt terrified. To move on, the only thing I can do is forgive her and let go of her mistaken notions. I find I’m still scared occasionally of what lies ahead and, perhaps more accurately, what lies within – but I will never again accept a lesser version of my Self. I am done playing games.

I am done pretending.

Here Now

When I look around at my life lately, I’m amazed at the fullness of it… at how I finally seem to be “taking up my space” rather than shrinking back. I wonder what is different now than from, say, a year ago. Mind set, I guess. I made a difficult choice in order to keep my Self from disappearing. That decision shook my world, my foundation, and my expectations. In the aftermath I grieved but I also had an incredible opportunity to redefine my way of thinking about my Self and therefore my life. This realization gave rise to an attitude of can instead of can’t; embrace instead of avoid; yes instead of no. Though I am still learning, I am putting one foot in front of the other with my eyes on the horizon and my heart in the moment.

This gives me a direction in which to move, inspires the actions I take and clarifies my focus in the present. ‘Now’ is the only moment I can influence and yet it took years to realize and practice. If I am to live at all, it must be here. If I am to love, it will be today. In this, I find fearlessness.

Now I can live. At last.