Climbing our family tree

Just recently, I became a grandmother again. The joy of seeing my daughter give birth to what would be the next generation of our clan filled me with pride. As a mother of a blended family, I have learned that the significance of family doesn’t always come with blood, but the love you cultivate in the relationship of family. During this past year, relationships and connection to kin has taken on new significance for me. Even friendships looked different this year, as we retreated to our homes and safe spaces. Our focus was on the tight circles that surrounded our loved ones and our lives. We placed our arms around our little world and unintentionally disengaged from those who fell outside of it, if only by a little. It was a time when I felt more alone than I had in a long time. I longed for my missing family and social connection and the meaning these relationships brought to my life.

As many likely did, my family explored the boundaries of our ancestry to research our origins. We wanted to know more about from where we came, and learn about the distant relatives mentioned by our aging parents each holiday and family reunion. Surprisingly, as we began to climb our family tree, we discovered branches we had never seen. As leaves on our tree, each photograph and census report hinted at stories and a history we had yet to uncover. Not only did we match our genetic leaves with others in our past, but we learned about our ethnic heritage and those ancestors who had a knack for business. We became detectives and uncovered the hidden stories about those who suffered loss and married again. School photographs shared confirmation of an education, and the births, deaths, and marriages told stories of hardship and the baby who didn’t survive. Most of all, we climbed our tree high enough to reach a branch we’d never seen before, living family we could meet and with whom we could share the love that would eventually deepen our roots and strengthen our family tree. We found new family who, with a phone call or an email, became our daughter, our sister, our grandmother, and aunt.

Discovering new family was scary, but exciting in a way we had not expected. In my midlife, I have often looked back at how much my tiny family before motherhood has grown from the sapling of my childhood to a craggy oak tree of motherhood and beyond. Whether by blood or by bond, this seasoned oak continues to be enriched by each family member who sprouted roots in this fertile ground. I hope that as we grow the shade we provide continues as well.

One step forward, two steps…

In a time where movement is restricted and crowds are the new social evil, these days are filled with work and family. I keep busy and tend to the here and now but once the day is done I try to find quiet time that calms my mind. Being at home this much is not normal for me, and I’ve become restless. I’ve become sedentary and still and I don’t like it.

As I approached my midlife, I developed a new found appreciation of household freedom. Things were more in order. I didn’t feel obligated to maintain the same meal schedule as when my kids were home. I enthusiastically dispelled the sense of responsibility I overcultivated as a young mother and enjoyed the ability to stay up late, see friends on a whim, and not cook to please everyone in the house. These BP times (Before Pandemic) supported a more “free to be me” exploration. But not any more. As we have shut our doors, wear our masks and stay close to home, everyone has had to make changes. I now have family who have returned to the nest, as the struggle continues to adapt to our new normal.

I admit, this opportunity to focus on the present and remain healthy and happy has been a blessing. I am working to be more attentive to my relationships. I attend to my self care. I try (but not as successfully) to be more active. The fact that I now assess the quality of my day by the readout of my sleep and steps has shifted me into a new paradigm. For most of us, this pandemic has introduced too many plates to juggle. The perspective I hold on my daily living is now rooted from my home base and how I must pivot to adjust to each new challenge. Pivot has become the new word for me. The discovery of my ability to pivot has strengthened me. It is not just the steps forward I take each day but how I respond to the daily events of the world.

Strangely enough, I find a renewed sense of purpose in this perspective on life. Maybe I’ve been too focused on moving forward, moving fast, moving ahead and beyond this craziness. It’s not sufficient to keep up. Maybe my athletic prowess needs work, as I “dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge”. In fact, demonstrating the best possible pivot might better be served from my preteen fashion modeling class. Each step forward gets you the end of the runway, but your pivot is what shows you off to the most people in the room. So as 2020 has brought me to the edge of my personal runway, here’s to the pivot showing off my best possible self to 2021.

Cracks in the ceiling

During this time of COVID-19 and the importance of limiting exposure to the outside world, I believe we have all spent a little more time focused on home. More of my friends and family put up holiday decorations earlier than normal. Wanting that feeling of coziness and safety among dear ones was key to supporting one’s emotional health. I was sent plenty of images showing Hallmark movie holiday décor and families in festive attire. Social media blurred its lens to display pictures that others in our community wanted us to see – that they were making it. They were surviving. That they were ok and looking ahead to healthier and happier times. But this season, not all families wore matching Christmas pajamas.

In many families, like mine, there is discord at home. Fractures in our faith in what is right and what is wrong have made me uncomfortable with those who tell me my mask makes me someone who doesn’t value freedom. I am afraid of the growing violence and hate disguised as support for our leadership. And most of all, I am concerned that friendships are being torn apart. At a time when my world is small, and restricted, my relationships with family and friends are what I have left to connect me with the outside. While my midlife self is decluttering my home of memories and emotional baggage from the past in order to live in the present, it means that I am more closely examining the four walls of my world. And right now, my world is my home. My door keeps sickness out and lets family in. My friendships help me sort out what to keep and what to throw away. However, in these desperate times, I am not feeling as safe in my community. The overly attentive mother is examining her midlife with scrutinizing detail, and what she is finding is not pretty.

The complexity and challenge of remaining healthy and compassionate when the world around you is crumbling can be overwhelming. The discourse of the day about vaccines, masks, and even safe holidays at home put me at odds with what normally makes me healthy and happy this holiday season. While I should have been decking the halls and making merry, I was fortifying my structure and engaging in debate that weakened my faith in my community. This new year, I have found cracks in my ceiling. I just hope that my roof, and the roof over us all, doesn’t come tumbling down.

The power of letting go

It was receiving some unexpected news from one of my children that tore me from my comfy spot in midlife to shove me into the real world of motherhood again. Apparently, I had become too complacent; or rather, I’d become too comfortable in my unchallenged life. I was planning, I was achieving, I was thriving in the mindfulness of the mundane. I had found a moment of peace as all my family seemed to be working their plans and coming to family Christmas. I was happy. I could deal with the extra few pounds from the quarantined routine. I could cope with the change of wearing a mask and the new grocery store layout. But every once and again, like now, something reminds me that I am no longer a mother managing her matriarchy. I am, for moments like these, a supportive sideliner of the family tree.

Times like this are becoming more frequent. Fearing for what might happen to those I love. Somehow, if they had just listened to me the world would be right. If I had just said the right thing, moved the right way, spoke in the quiet voice that screamed the answer, life would be different. The outcome would have been for the best. The world would have been perfect. It is so hard to be rooted in the moment, yet respectful of my children’s lives to leave the past where it belonged, and walk along side them rather than lead. My heart cries mama tears when I land in this spot. How can I be strong for the both of us? How can I fix this? How can I love you enough to make this go away?

This may sound foolish to some who have not lived this motherhood. My children are wonderful and unique and at times perfect and sometimes broken and I know this. What I am learning is that with my midlife I carry a new kind of strength. I love a new kind of love – one that is tough and resilient in ways I never knew. I no longer carry my babies in my arms, or shelter them in my shadow. I now have to watch them as the walk ahead of me, breathing life into their own world. Trembling in my heart, my mama tears soon cease as I find the strength to release my fear. I am finding the power to let go and it terrifies me. I will not be the same, but different. And my children will be better because I did so.

The right to be grateful

For several years, my renewed path to mindfulness included my focus on gratitude. As I became a parent, it became even clearer that the comfortable life in which I was raised was what I wanted for my children. I wanted them to not be spoiled, but free from worry about being in a safe neighborhood, free from concern about whether we would be able to pay the utility bill, or have enough money for the basic meals AND snacks. While today’s teens assume a cell phone and computer is a basic right, I wanted my family to be able to go to the doctor whenever there was a need. Being fully insured, fully fed, and fully entertained was our goal. Being fully educated was the underlying theme at every family discussion. At least it was for me. Having all these things meant my family was on their way to success, and I was grateful to be able to provide this for them as it was provided for me. So there was little doubt that when I became an empty nester, my attention should be directed in showing gratitude and being thankful for the grace I’d received.

Many of my enlightened friends were also at this point in their lives. We considered it a test of our faith or moral character. Acknowledging the ability to live free from most worries allowed us to be humble. To celebrate our personal freedom of no longer being the maniacal mother of teenage tyrants, but now living the life of respectful humility. We’d made it. If our children were still around to tell the tale and visit us on an occasional weekend, it was all good. However, my meditation on the benefits of being grateful took me down a thoughtful turn I had not expected. Was being grateful enough?

The basis of gratitude implies that you exist within a world that provides. That you are seen. That your voice is heard. And that you have succeeded. However, after much thought, I have concluded that the richness of one’s comfort is not earned by hard work. It seems, in part, that the privilege of being grateful is due to being born into circumstances that grant you the right to have. For all of my life, I have looked to my parents as they worked and struggled and then as my spouse and I worked and struggled to provide for our family. Little had I realized that my privilege did not just come from my hard work, but that my ancestors were able to own their home. That my parents shopped freely without fear and provided me things many others did not have. When my children had scrapes with the law, I could rescue them without further recourse as I was not second guessed as a bad mother or worse, judged as less than human. Gratitude had become my evidence of privilege.

I cannot begin to share with you how this troubles me. Being grateful, recognizing that I could have lived without but did not, was part of my midlife commitment to peace. Learning that this peace came at a price that I did not pay is overwhelming to me. How do I reconcile the future I want to provide my children, with addressing these inequities so that all mothers can be grateful and provide for theirs?

I do not have the answers to this, but like a pebble in my shoe, each step I take on this journey is a painful lesson that peace often comes at a cost. How expensive it is will be determined by how we share our ability to be grateful with others.

The fragrance of yesterday’s flowers

This spring and all the rain has made our community extremely green. In the cool mornings working from home, I have made breathing in the scent from my herbs and flowers I have planted a part of my ritual of mindful meditation. While we have all read or heard about how smell can evoke memories that have been associated with particular scents, I find that my mornings often transport me to places unexplored. Unexplored, yet ready for me to uncover the promise of tomorrow. Somehow, the growing life that fills my garden not only takes me back but holds me in a space that is quiet and new and purposeful. I have found a connection between the past, present, and the future in these gifts from my garden.

My maternal family has always loved roses. I’ve learned that our body chemistry and our ability to smell differs from person to person. However, despite the color or fragrance, the scent of roses evokes my past in a way that is more powerful than I could have imagined. I am reminded of the football-sized roses of all colors that lined my grandmother’s drive in the country where dirt roads were commonplace. I think back to my childhood where we knew we were close to my Grammy and Granddad because we saw the drive and even smelled the richness of the blooms as the tires from our car crunched over the gravel and dirt circular path. My mother continued this appreciation as her driveway in the city was also lined with roses, carrying on the sensory tradition of the anticipation of being home. While my roses do not yet grow in abundance, the fragrance of my Mr. Lincolns takes me back to a past that was simple and filled with home.

This spring, in particular, has been wonderfully fresh and I have planted mint and rosemary (ah! that rosemary!) and catered to my few growing flowers. Working the soil in the morning sun, I converse with myself about the need to wear a hat. At times, I must spend time recovering from my worshipful seat on the ground. I will occasionally stop and listen to the birds. Sometimes, I will smell the earth and my trusty canine companions and the evidence of a day at play. These moments, these scents, spur my imagination of the world to come. Retirement is too far away, but the peaceful repose of my midlife gives me hope for growth. Just like my herbs. Just like my roses. While my garden keeps me grounded in the moment, the fragrance of yesterday’s flowers allows me the gratitude of what was and excitement of what is to come.

Every breath I take…

I just lost someone dear to me. It was lung cancer that had spread its pervasive toxin throughout his body to the point where every motion, every breath, was a challenge. It was raw, and fast, and devastating. At a time in my life where each breath is a path to remaining centered and whole, here was a clear reminder of the gift that a simple breath represents. Mindful existence.

It was difficult to see how something so simple represented such a significant struggle between life and death. Good air in. Bad air out. Each moment was an effort to focus on the daily act of living. I soon realized how much of a privilege it was to be able to remain mindful and focused during a time that became so overwhelming for us all. Love could not fix this. Hindsight could not take me to a place where I could right the wrong and make things whole again. In the days that followed, that focus became blurred as we all served as witness to his passing.

Where is it written that the gift of life and breath is only for a few? How can it be that some continually live in fear of never fully exploring their breath and the gift of life we all share? Living in the privilege of a breath without fear connects us all with love. It is the fear that creeps into our ability to remain equal. To love equally. To live equally. Breathing is nothing, yet everything. Are we all equally breathing, equally mindful? Never fearing that each moment is a gift that should not stolen from another. During my time of grief, my attention to my loss was directed to another who also had his breath stolen from him. His loss is also my loss. His fear and what it represents becomes my fear as well.

The musician Sting once sang, “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you”. My family, my friends, my world: I am watching you. Every breath you take. Every move you make during a time when we all must equally breathe. Together, we must breathe as one or we do not truly breathe at all. While we cannot fix the past with love, we can look forward and measure the moments in our life with how equally we regard each other. These acts that take our breath away for just a moment should remind us of how precious we all are.

Now that your attention is focused, where will your next breath take you?

My cup runneth over…

It was on my weekend getaway a few months ago, traveling by myself, that I took the time to understand the value of a moment. You may be thinking, “What’s a moment in the big scheme of things? Why is just a minute so important?” These days, in the time of sheltering in place, I find myself revisiting the value of time spent alone with little to do.

It had been clear that my life was taking a turn down the path of “living like I was dying”. Packing every moment with items on my bucket list: enjoying my favorite foods, seeing my favorite people more regularly, and even searching for adventures in the great unknown. As I approached midlife, I struggled with feelings that I wanted my life to count – and that I wanted to live with no regrets. It had become easy to get caught up in the planning instead of the actual living my life in these moments. It was when I finally had my “Aha” moment just recently that I took a step back from this breakneck pace and TYPE A goals (as the planner I am) to understand how my living in the moment was the perfect example of quantity over quality. My goal of paying attention had evolved into make each moment count. Little did I realize that the lesson I had to learn was that making each moment count was about finding the little joys in the moment, not making the moment “explode” with life. Somehow, I had lost the ability to see and appreciate the little things, not for what they were in connection to the big picture of my crazy days, but appreciate them for the bits of undiscovered joy they were. Reminding myself that my midlife goal was to incorporate mindfulness into all that I do, I reexamined my routine and in the process, made some improvements to my tiny world.

As a holiday gift, I received a subscription to a monthly box with samples of tea. The purpose: to provide a taste of something you might consider for future purchase. This is not a new concept – but as my mood for tea varies greatly, I took the plunge, completed the enrollment and waited for my first box. It was unclear what kind of tea I’d be receiving – white, green, black, oolong, matcha, or other flavorful combinations. I had answered questions about how I drank my tea, how I normally prepared my tea, when I drank my tea, and I even provided details about my preference on flavors. This monthly box was soon to become a pleasant surprise in an otherwise busy schedule. But what arrived at my doorstep was much more than just a box. It was truly an adventure in mindfulness.

I opened my first box to find colorful packets with foreign names and flavors. There was a description card for the teas, as well as instructions for how to make the best cup. Making a good cup of tea required attention; something I had not ever made time for in the past. The phrase, “a watched pot never boils” took on new meaning for me as I adapted my busy life to the art of making tea. By the arrival of the second box, I had carved out time for my tea. It became an adventure as I unwrapped the packets and packages of loose leaves. I became an explorer as I discovered new tastes of what I had transformed from a dry packet of leaves to a hot, sweet beverage to savor. I was taking time to enjoy the quiet moments with a full cup.

It was upon receiving my third monthly box that I realized how I had been brought to the peak of mindfulness as I had filled the kettle with water and waited for it to boil. Standing at the stove, I focused on preparing my cup and laying ready my spoon, honey, and my teacozy. Hearing the burbling sounds of the kettle, I’d taken hold of the handle as the water was boiling away, feeling the rumbling energy of the water as it was brought to the perfect temperature. As I poured the water into the teapot, I savored the wafting scent of my creation. My cup of tea had mindfully brought me to a place I had long since forgotten.

Since this time, I have learned that I must work at being mindful. I’ve decided that for me, clarity and peace of mind comes with the goal of looking for something and finding nothing. Not a task for my list, not a project to be completed, but being open to the joy of drinking a full cup of tea and what it took for me to find it.

Who will tell my story?

Just recently was the anniversary of my mother’s death. It’s been six years since she passed away in my home town. We had lived apart, almost 2,000 miles apart, and while technology made it seem closer, it was not close enough. She had become unable to travel and I was still in full-time parent mode. However, as she had more time to visit with me in her retirement years, I was able get to know more about her time as a mother of girls and even a little as a young girl herself. Between the stories of aches and pains of senior life and drama she lived with distant family and her residential facility friends, she occasionally shared a recollection of a time I knew little or nothing about – her youth.

After her death, my sister and I took time to study the few remaining pieces of her life she’d left behind with us. Since moving to an assisted living facility and having to sell her home, it was clear that she had to let go of the identity she had once created for herself as wife, teacher, mother, homeowner, and grandmother. In this new setting and for the years that followed, my mother evolved – or maybe devolved – into the life she led until her death. Now, in a few boxes, what remained of her was given to us to discover.

What we found in these boxes was a woman we barely knew. Instead of the conservative woman who shied away from risk, we found an adventurer. Someone who was a leader, a success within any community she engaged. Someone who, as a young girl from a tiny farming community, fished and camped in the Redwoods. As a teacher fresh out of college, she went to the Far East to travel and teach to young children with military families. We discovered lapel pins and class photos and evidence of her travels to exotic places. We felt sad that the woman we had come to know in death was not the woman we knew in life.

Those of you who follow this journey of mine into midlife have heard my stories of decluttering my life and focusing on the present. Instead of what had become a routine of schedules and sacrifice, I am focusing more on enjoying my life as it unfolds and living an authentic life built not only on the past but the present. As I read between the lines of my mother’s belongings, I was saddened to conclude that we, as a family, had been unsuccessful in helping her tell her story. Instead of celebrating who she was with us, she had put it in the past and lived a life she felt she should – a life of obligation. Where was this carefree girl fishing in the river? Exploring her world? Leading the charge of those around her? Why were we left with a feeling that we didn’t genuinely know the wonderful person she was? How different would our lives have been had this woman had been more a part of our lives?

My father, who had become estranged from our family after the divorce, led a very troubled and lonely life. In death a couple years later, he left no one behind to share his story. My decluttering of my parents belongings and other collected items allowed me to reminisce through the artifacts of my personal history. This gave me pause to think about my life and how I want to be remembered when I am no longer here to tell MY story. Some will ask, why does it matter? You will be gone and it will no longer affect you. After much reflection, I have concluded it matters to me because I want to be remembered. I want my story to be woven into the fabric of my “people” and their collective hearts. Being remembered gives your love and the life you lead purpose.

Nowadays, with social media, people who really don’t know you well may only know what you share via your streams of posts and tweets. The duality of crafting your public story versus living your private one has become the reality of today’s generation. I wholeheartedly believe that we owe it to ourselves to tell our own story. I derive my strength and inspiration from the string of events that are mine and mine alone. All the good and the bad moments have made me who I am and I want my people to know every bit of it. What about you? What of your life gives you purpose? How will others tell your story?

What lies at my altar…

In a time where it is easy to lose one’s faith in humanity and the simple gratitude for life, I am reminded of the many ways we celebrate our faith, our belief in goodness, and the power of this universe to shelter the evolution of our love for one another. Some find purpose in making time to help others. Others find fulfillment in prayer or solitude. Nowadays, I find myself restless and unable to focus what gives my life meaning. I look for things to clean and people to hold, to support, and to talk to. At times I worry that the periods of quiet in my life foretell of my becoming irrelevant and unnecessary.

As an empty nester, I feel like a parent in absentia. As a spouse, I’ve become an explorer into my self discovery. As an American, I’ve become an activist in the battle between privilege and achievement. My life these days seems full of planning and checklists. What do they say? Life is what happens when you’re making plans. However, even among the checklists and the schedules, I strive to live my life in mindfulness. Even in midlife, I still find myself caught between the lessons of the past and the planning for the future. It is for this reason I build my personal altar. It is here that I can maintain the focus on my life, the important things, and my daily midlife journey.

I am not a church goer. I do not pray at an altar or kneel in reverence at temple. I have, however, found great peace in creating a personal altar of sacred things. My things. My mementos. Periodically adding items of value and meaning to me and lessons in gratitude they represent in my life. A button from my father’s jacket to remind me of how a negative memory of someone close to you can change over time and become the good thing you need it to be. A sand dollar collected from the beach in the city I love that reminds me that I can simply close my eyes to remember the wet sand and cool breeze of my youth. A sandalwood scented candle placed in front of me is ready to light with the intent of breathing in my joy and breathing out my gratitude.

This altar tethers me to the choices I make in my life and how I want to matter. I don’t like feeling lost. I don’t like feeling angry at a cruel world and at he ignorance of others. At times, it is difficult to remain hopeful when there is so much ugliness and misfortune. However, in spite of it all, I find myself swinging between the times of awe and thankfulness for the moments of wonder and beauty I encounter in my life and the sorrow at the inevitability of the destruction of our planet and all its creatures.

At this altar, I have my candle to light my path when it has grown dark. I have my dragonfly to remind me that natural beauty is appreciating the individual, not always comparing one to the brilliantly colored butterfly. I have mementos of my family that keep me focused on my love for them and how I can strive to always be a teacher, or a friend. All these things, and more, allow me to not become overwhelmed in the abundance of things. I live in the acknowledgement that while I am not responsible for the lives and actions of others, I can be humble and grateful for what I have. I can strive to make a difference in my midlife that will be just as good as making a difference as just a parent or wife.

How is your journey and what do you do to make your life matter? What lies at your altar?