It was a rich life. Even I, the most selfish and least satisfied and most sensitive and wary one, even I knew I was living in a blessed time. – Ellen Gilchrist, Net of Jewels
It was a rich life. Even I, the most selfish and least satisfied and most sensitive and wary one, even I knew I was living in a blessed time. – Ellen Gilchrist, Net of Jewels
blue post-blizzard morning
This month of the Here Year has been particularly thought-provoking for me. Aidan chose vulnerability which I think is a rich, complicated, and fascinating topic. A couple of weeks ago, there was a widely-circulated Modern Love essay called To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This. I was particularly struck by a piece I read in the article’s wake, which listed the specific questions the author refers to, and asserts that “mutual vulnerability fosters closeness.”
Aidan and I decided it would be fun to together answer some of the 36 questions. In the name of vulnerability and in the name of our project, we each agreed to share our responses to five of the questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the basic premise that being vulnerable to each other is the (only?) way to build true intimacy and, eventually, love.
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
We both have parents who are still married to each other. We are both from New England. We both lived in London for a formative stretch during our childhood or young adult years. Aside: I’m curious about the “appear” in the question. These are all facts that we definitely have in common!
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
I have long dreamed of writing a book. I still dream of this, though, candidly, that dream is changing. I haven’t done it because I haven’t yet convinced a publisher to take a chance on me!!
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
The knowledge that a friend will be with me, no matter what. That they’ll tolerate me and love me in spite of myself. That they’ll show up and listen and be there, whatever comes. Abide with me, as always, plays in my mind.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
I last cried by myself last week, out of fear and frustration and the unknown. I cry in front of my children all the time. I last cried in front of a friend in December when I realized I had behaved thoughtlessly and in a hurtful way. I drove over to her house, showed up, and just started bawling. It was most definitely the Ugly Cry. I think she heard me that I was sorry.
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
One of my photo albums from before digital photography (I still make old-school photo albums but the photos are also saved digitally). Or else one of my four quote books that I’ve been keeping since 1985.
I’d love to hear your responses to any or all of these questions. Furthermore, do you agree that mutual vulnerability is what love and closeness are made of?
A couple of weeks ago Matt and I took a rare and wonderful 24-hour respite from real life. We spent a night and a day in Vermont at the Hermitage Club and it was absolutely perfect. While Matt is from Vermont, this was a corner (southwest) of the state we haven’t spent much time. In fact, I’d never been there. Now, I can’t wait to go back. I am in love.
We started our adventure with an evening snowcat ride to the top of Haystack Mountain, now a part of the private Hermitage Club. We had fondue and drinks in a hut at the top and admired the nighttime views, and then enjoyed a delicious dinner in the gorgeous, brand new lodge.
The next morning dawned clear and cold and we had one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had at the Hermitage Inn. We knew we were in Vermont and felt right at home because we were sitting under a print of a painting of a duck by Matt’s adored aunt. We then headed out to ski the pristine slopes of Haystack. Because the Hermitage is a private club, it’s never crowded. All morning (and we tragically had to leave after lunch) we skiied directly onto ski lifts. There were #noliftlines. It had snowed the night before and the mountain was covered in several inches of powder.
Matt and I have skiied a lot, at a lot of places (New England, out west, Europe) and I can say without reservation that this was easily among our top three ski days. Ever.
We stopped at the same hut where we’d had drinks the night before for a hot chocolate. Every single person we encountered working at the Hermitage was friendly, warm, and professional. The service is flawless. The Hermitage has seen to every detail and made skiing as comfortable as humanly possible. There is valet parking and people take charge of your skis and gear for you. The food is delicious. There are no crowds. They can’t – yet – control the weather, but the introduction of a covered chairlift before next season will mean that riding up is warm and comfortable.
Haystack and the Hermitage are simply spectacular. My only regret is that Grace and Whit weren’t with us as I know they would have adored it. I think the Hermitage is absolutely built for children. It would be a fantastic place to learn to ski (no crowds = a much safer environment) and there is a full ski school program. The club has an excellent golf course and the mountain offers excellent biking and hiking opportunities. The spa wasn’t yet open when we were there but I imagine it’s, like the rest of the resort, absolutely perfection. There’s no question this is a four-season destination.
There are two ways to ski Haystack: join the Hermitage Club or stay at the Hermitage Inn. The latter is a great way to get a taste of the Hermitage Club experience, and the Inn itself is, as far as I can tell, the manifestation of a perfect New England inn. If breakfast is any indication, it’s some of the best dining in Vermont. They offer tubing, snow-shoeing, and cross-country skiing in addition to direct access to Haystack. This place is absolute, downright, unfettered magic. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The soaring ceilings of the lodge, with outrageously cool lighting fixtures
Disclosure: we were privileged to visit Haystack and the Hermitage as guests of the club. All opinions shared here are absolutely my own.
Thank you Lindsey, it is a huge honor to appear on your blog. I’m grateful for you, my friend.
That which we love
Three years ago, a night nurse broke my infant son’s legs. The abuse was intentional and she served (only) one year in jail. In the course of the investigation, we learned that six months before coming to work for us, the thirty-one year old woman also broke ten bones on two-week old twins in Belgium, before fleeing in the middle of the night when the parents took the babies to the hospital. A native of Utah, she was convicted and sentenced to four years in Belgium, with an extradition hearing set for March.
I share the story above only as context for the letter below to my sweet, hilarious, healthy, happy three-year-olds regarding vulnerability. Because the only thing I know for sure is the things and people we love most make us vulnerable. And the path of being truly alive includes how to remain that way.
To my sweet little unfurling souls, Kalvin and Grace,
Vulnerability. The concept has always been a tricky one for your momma having been raised in a Midwestern family where emotive displays contrasted sharply with the stalwart moral value (dare I write) of keeping a stiff upper lip. Add to that years exhibiting steadfast calm behind the goaltending hockey mask regardless of thousands of people yelling insults, and to say I was less than comfortable with being vulnerable would be an understatement.
And so in adulthood, I tackled it from a cerebral point of view, defining vulnerability as having the ability to say, “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry” and “I feel x, y, z.”
Actually, then Daddy and then you.
The three of you cracked me wide open, drastically changing my definition of vulnerability, because it’s like this: the people and things we love utterly and completely, and dream for and about from the deepest place within ourselves, and yearn and ache for such that our chests feel too small; they are what make us vulnerable. Disclosure warning. Your momma has suffered public and private humiliation, crushing heartbreak, the betrayal of close friends, violations of trust and love, pain, loss, rejection, devastating guilt, and deep, deep profound loneliness. All because I have loved. The pain exists; it is real. And it will be for you. The fact that there is nothing I can do to prevent your pain is at the heart of what I’m attempting to convey in this letter to you.
Because, my sweet little beings, I hope you love the world anyway. I hope you have the courage to fall in love with as many things as possible, over and over again. I hope you always remember how to melt into the moments in front of you, as you do so naturally now; how to be present with the stars in a clear mountain sky, the spontaneous laughter of a great friend; the yearning regrets of a parent, the curiosity of a toddler touching snow for the first time, the dog who will not leave his injured owner’s side, the snow crystals than hover suspend in the air, as if we all lived and breathed amongst billions of tiny diamond fairies. I hope you feel it all.
I think Momma’s friend Lindsey is right, vulnerability and presence are inextricably linked. And being present for the good stuff is much easier than remaining present for the hard. But to truly live, I believe you need to be open and vulnerable to both. In order to evolve, you need to learn to carry those contradictions gently in your hearts.
Someday you will ask me about what happened to you. You will ask about depravity and pain, and I hope I will be able to convey with empathy and compassion that yes, evil exists. It lived and breathed in our home, it smiled and laughed at our dinner table. It tortured babies. It injured you. And yes, knowing of evil is different than experiencing its existence, as you have.
But the same is true of love. And you know so much love. And I know so much love. And our home is full of love. And so I hope you will have the fortitude to choose, despite human depravity, to see beauty and live in a way that is a tribute to overcoming the darkness. I hope you will have the courage and the grit to know you can handle anything life throws at you. I hope you will have the bravery and the resilience to stay open, vulnerable and porous (Lindsey’s word) such that even when you feel like a lonely drop in a vast ocean, you will remember you are not alone, for you are the ocean itself.
Because here’s the spoiler alert, even the people and things you love will break your heart. Wide open. Especially those. Sometimes they break it to let the light in. Sometimes they break it so your heart can heal stronger. Sometimes the things we love break our hearts so we know just how strong we are. And sometimes, the heart just breaks.
But therein begins the challenge, path, and destination all in one. Can you continue to honor what your heart is feeling and the life you’ve been given, no matter what? Can you stay open anyway; can you live with what is?
Because more than anything that happens to you, how you react and the choices you make will determine the quality and course of your lives. Your choices will define you, not the darkness, not the hard, not the evil, not what anyone else says or does. Just you. Life simply unfolds. It’s going to do its thing. And we all have the choice to jump in, lean in, learn and grow. Or we can choose to shut down, resist, and close. We can be the victim. We can live in fear, afraid of what happened or what may happen. We can live in tight little boxes of routine and comfort, secure behind the walls of distractions, rigid belief systems, over-exercise, strange restricted eating habits, closets full of perfectly folded clothes, calendars full of social engagements we don’t really want to attend, DVRs full of whatever, and the myriad of other ways people hide and defend themselves against the world. We can blame, justify, rationalize. We can fold.
Or we can live. Laugh, dream, cry, play, break, weep, despair, love, fight, hate, dance, and do it all again. Stand up, fall down, get back up, be your own hero, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself, my little Gracie girl and Buddha bear. Honor the manifestation of creation that is unfolding right in front of you, whatever it may be, each and everyday, knowing you will be okay. You will be okay. You are already okay. So you don’t have to close. You don’t have to shut yourself off from life. It may hurt at times, okay. Ouch. Huge ouch. But try not to close. Try to surrender and melt into the magic because that is where the good stuff is found. That is where you reside now, even within our busy and chaotic days that are changing at a dizzying pace, you live totally and completely, with effortless resilience and affection, open and aware in each moment, ready for each adventure.
And so I want to live there too, with you. Your Daddy already lives there. His innocence and vulnerability both terrify and inspire me, just like yours. I’m all too aware that my need to live with three of you in wonder and awe leaves me vulnerable. And that’s ok. Because we are alive, together.
I love you both, with all my everything, love, Momma
It is a huge honor to share Sarah‘s beautiful words with you today. It has been a privilege to get to know Sarah, in person as well as online, and I count her among my dearest friends now. I hope you loved her writing as much as I do. You can learn more about Sarah on her Writer page, here.
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
– Billy Collins
In honor of this week that Whit turned ten. Thank you to Kim for reminding me of this beautiful poem.
Yesterday, you turned ten. Your single-digit years came to a close, and the night before last I kissed a single-digit child good night a final time. Another last, which, you’ve noted before, all belong to you. I can’t pretend I don’t feel some sorrow about this. I do. I stood outside your bedroom after saying goodnight and leaned my head against the doorjamb and cried. Hard.
Last night we celebrated, as we always do family birthdays, at home with dinner by candlelight. You got to choose the menu, which was: your favorite brie, chicken parm subs from our local pizzeria, kale salad, and homemade triple chocolate cake. You and Grace share a fierce preference for homemade cake. I love that this is how you feel and I gladly make whatever you want.
When I started this blog you were one. I’ve chronicled so much of your childhood here, from when I observed that you were leaving babyhood to thoughts on saying good night to a growing toddler, to your ninth birthday letter. I have also written many times about the overjoyed bewilderment that bloomed the day you were born and that has never quite left me. A boy? I’m one of two girls and never had a brother and to say that parenting a son was a new frontier is an understatement. Of course all of parenting is an adventure without a guidebook, and your gender is only one way in which I’ve been startled and delighted by you over the years.
It feels like yesterday I wrote that your babyhood was clinging to you, and now it feels like it’s your childhood that’s hanging on by a thread. You’re still small and slight and I can easily carry you, but I know those days are numbered. You are sprinting towards being a young man faster than I can possibly comprehend, following your sister into adolescence. I stand in the shadow of that fact every day.
You love hockey and have greeted your sister’s decision to start playing the sport with an equal measure of trepidation (“it’s my sport!”) and happiness (“something for us to do together!”). You are so capable putting on your gear that you no longer need me in the locker room at all, which, I’ll admit, is okay by me because a roomful of nine- and ten-year old Squirts smell a lot worse than did a roomful of seven- and eight-year old Mites. I’m confident that your team’s heartbreaking loss in last season’s playoffs is an experience you’ll remember forever. I know I will. You’re a good baseball player, too: last year you were the lead-off batter for your team and my favorite moment of the season is when you hit a home run while your grandparents were visiting from Florida and watching. After you ran the bases, I took a picture of you with your grandparents. Your face is radiant with joy and I remember feeling your heart thumping in your chest like a rabbit as I hugged you before taking it.
More than anything else, your true passion is how things work. I think you’re a maker at your core. When people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, you respond, without hesitation, “a robot designer.” I won’t be surprised if that’s what you do. You asked for a soldering kit for your birthday and build large, working Legos without help. I love that you still love Legos. You enjoy building electronics and are learning rudimentary programming and love doing science experiments on the weekends. This fall you made a classic baking soda volcano which your godmother was around to witness exploding.
You’ve always been a capable reader, but in the last year you’ve truly discovered the way a good book can engross and transport you. It started with A Wrinkle in Time, my favorite childhood book, and watching you fall in love with L’Engle’s world was one of the great joys of the last year for me. You blazed through The Secret Series this fall and read The Phantom Tollbooth in two days over Christmas. In fact I busted you reading The Phantom Tollbooth by headlamp at midnight on Christmas Eve, took it away, and your first words on Christmas Day when you woke up (at 8:45!) were “where’s my book?”
Late in the fall, in the fourth grade Environmental Assembly, you gave a presentation to a roomful of school mates and parents that knocked my socks off. You didn’t read from your presentation or notes, you spoke clearly and audibly, and you made us all laugh. You were nervous and took the presentation entirely seriously, which I loved to see, but you were transformed into someone confident and capable when you took the microphone. It’s a moment I won’t forget.
I also won’t forget watching you win the Best Camper Award for your unit at camp this summer. I went to the same camp for 7 years before I won an award, and in your second summer you won the big one. I missed you while you were away but I feel proud knowing that you clearly came into your own there, and every word your counselor read before he announced your name made me grin. It brings tears to my eyes to remember the moment he said “Whit Russell,” and the incredulous, overwhelmingly proud look your father and I gave each other. You, the only boy in the Junior Scouts who had worn a coat and tie to Cup Night, scurried up to hug all your counselors and accept your trophy as I watched, tears running down my cheeks. My little boy is growing up, and it was clear as I listened to those words that you’re becoming a young man who takes care of others, sets an example, throws himself into new experiences, and still, loves a good prank.
You like to curl up on the couch and read Harry Potter with me, you love to take tubs, and the only fruits or vegetables you’ll touch are lettuce, spinach, and kale. Beloved, Beloved’s Brother, and Bear all sleep with you, as does Lego, who you won so many years ago during our first trip to Legoland. You give me our secret sign that means “I love you” as you head off to school in the morning, proudly name pink as your favorite color, exhibit deep loyalty to your closest friends, and make me laugh every single day. In my 10 years as your mother, you have never met someone who didn’t say something to me about how funny you are. At the same time, there’s a seam of sensitivity running through you that reminds me of … well, me. I’m ambivalent about this and often wish I hadn’t handed down my predisposition towards heartache. Still, since it seems I did, I hope you never stop showing me your feelings, even if that means that sometimes you hurt. It’s one of the things I worry the most about protecting – your willingness to feel, and to talk about those feelings – as you grow into a young man.
I couldn’t possibly be prouder of you, Whit, my first son, my last baby. I adore you and I always will.
Image I shared on Instagram on Monday. You at 3 months, and you at almost-10. In between lies a lifetime of laughter and tears and adventures and joys, which passed on a single blink.
It feels fitting that Mamalode has published my piece, The Entire World Contracted, about a moment I’ll never forget during my first pregnancy, on the day my last baby turns 10 (which I will write about tomorrow!).
I hope you will click over and read my short piece here.
And the seasons, they go round and round …
Beautiful morning moon, last week, on the way to school.
Through the comments on my post last week about vulnerability, I met a new writer whose work I’m enjoying. In particular, this post, Dear Lonely Moms of Older Kids, really resonated with me. It made me think about the fact that if parenting is an exercise in being vulnerable, perhaps as our children get older the challenges on the vulnerability front get harder.
This is turning out to be true for me. I was telling someone recently about the single choice for which I received the most judgment as the parent of a young child. That was the decision to let Grace, at 5, fly alone. I felt comfortable with the decision, Matt felt comfortable with the decision, and Grace herself felt comfortable with it. I have no regrets. But for weeks and months after, I faced judgment from other moms on the playground which varied from thinly-concealed to outright and almost-hostile.
That was a long time ago, though, and it was an isolated incident. Somehow the parenting decisions I make now feel more complicated, more fraught. They have to do with what media I allow and messages about body image and technology and control over sleep and time. I find myself saying with a metronomic regularity, “different families make different choices.” The risk of judgment if I make a choice different from those the parents around me are making seems higher than ever. And while I know that judgment comes from a place of deeply-held wanting to do the right thing by our own children, it can still sting.
Vulnerability is closely tied with judgment and loneliness, both of which almost instantly make me feel “unable to withstand the effects of a hostile environment,” which is the definition of vulnerability I’m working with these days.
So I feel more judged these days, mostly because I think the decisions feel bigger and more important. Maybe also because I am increasingly aware of my identity as a working mother, and the more I own that, the more I open myself up to feeling judged about it (some of which I’m entirely willing to admit may be in my head).
I also feel more lonely in general these days now that my children are older. Lonelier because I’m working more, which is happening for a million reasons. One of those reasons is that they’re busier, so I have more time to work. Lonelier because the intensity of new-friend-making that marked the first years at school has abated. The moms have their friends.
But I also feel, and it’s hard for me to admit this, lonelier for my children. They’re busier, and, more importantly, they’re doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is separate from me. This is more pronounced with Grace, who’s older and plunging into adolescence with a speed that makes my head spin. But still, there’s a marked change in degree of daily intimacy with my children and the truth is I mourn this development. They also have to judge me as they separate, there’s no question about that. Again, it’s something I’m seeing more with Grace than with Whit, but there’s some withering scorn sent my way these days that is new.
All of these factors combine to make me feel more vulnerable now that my children are older. In those first months of parenting Grace, when I was more depressed than I have ever been in my life, when I was reduced to a shell of a person, I couldn’t have imagined another experience would ever disassemble me so entirely. Yet here I am.
But maybe this isn’t about my children at all?
Some of this may just be being in a vulnerable moment in life. I feel buffeted by the hostile environment, often, these days. A friend called me recently with “news” and I told Matt I honestly didn’t know if she had cancer or was pregnant. Joyfully, it was the latter. But we’re perched on a knife edge, it feels like, in this middle place, with peril all around us and still, so much heart-shattering joy.
Maybe this increasing sense of vulnerability is just that as I age I grow more comfortable with my own porousness, let down my well-development defense mechanisms, and let more of life – the startling beauty as well as the bitter loss and pain – in. As much as it slices me, this shift, I don’t think I’d want it any other way.
And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people – by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate – and enjoy.
– Ted Hughes, Letters of Ted Hughes
I loved the movie version of Wild, a book I adored. I came straight home and went to my heavily underlined- and written-in copy of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language. I read the first page, the first poem, which Reese Witherspoon specifically reads and thinks about in the movie.
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
I’ve always loved these lines, and often think about them. Leonard Cohen rose to my mind, then, singing about how “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
For a long time I’ve wanted to believe this. I’m often told it’s true. I think it is. I want it to be. I know what my personal wound is. It is my sensitivity, my awareness of time’s swift passage. I wrote the paragraph below in 2010 (when I was 36):
It’s all connected, the way I observe the world in sometimes-excruciating detail, the untrammeled rushes of joy I can feel at the most unexpected times, the heart-wrenching pain my life delivers at others. This is all a part of being an exceptionally porous person. Is it any wonder that I’ve had to develop coping mechanisms, be they an aversion to true vulnerability or a tendency towards distraction, in order to mitigate the power of constantly living in such an exposed way? I’m easily overwhelmed by the grandeur and terror of this life, and I have over 36 years built up a variety of ways of managing the pain that that inundation can bring with it. It’s a package deal, the wound and the wonder. I don’t know how to have one without the other. Even the most swollen, shiny rapture is striated with sadness.
Four years later I read this and my first reaction is: I don’t instinctively think about my coping mechanisms anymore. I wonder what that means. Have I come to terms with the painful ramifications of my own wound? I’m still easily overwhelmed by this life, there’s no question about that. These days that overwhelm, and the observations that flood in its wake, form the bulk of what I write about. Does that mean I am learning to access the power that comes from the same source as the wound?
I don’t think of myself as a powerful person. At all. So maybe that’s not the right word. Perhaps inspiration works better. My wounds and my inspiration have the same source. That makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also clear to me that the crack in me – the porousness, the sensitivity, the awareness – is absolutely where the light gets in. It’s also where the shadow lives
And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I can’t see the light without the shadow. That much is abundantly clear to me now. I take pictures of shadows – like the one above – all the time, and am drawn to the intersection of light and dark. I guess that – the interplay of light and shadow – is one way of describing my wound, and also, I understand at last, my inspiration.
What do you think about Adrienne Rich’s assertion that our wounds come from the same source as our power?