There seems to be so much less beauty in the world during the winter months. The leaves, once so lush and dazzling, have fallen and turned to mush on the wet ground. All that remains where they once thrived is brown or gray, the branches seeming lost and forlorn without their adornments. Looking day after day at the bare and harsh landscape can threaten to become a reflection of what lies within, rather than what surrounds, if we’re not careful. But the sun, though it prefers to hide in winter, also teases its presence.
I cherish the sun on the days when it shines, promising to thaw the chill in my bones. Walking through the woods, where the light is pale and thin, I brace myself against a gust of wind that tries to bully, determined to convince me that coldness is in charge, and I do not belong, there is nothing to see here.
And yet. Without the lush and full foliage, I am able to see so much more clearly the things that are usually hidden away. The roots of a fallen tree, weaving intricate patterns among thousands of towering Oaks, have become home to an entire eco-system of moss and I am reminded that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”*. This is the season of change. Of ending one year and putting it behind us, striving to be better, stronger, and more true to ourselves in the year to come.
The hardest thing about change, though, is letting go of what was and having faith in what will be, if we will only allow ourselves the opportunity. Wanting tomorrow to be safe and sure, we often shy away from following in nature’s footsteps by cutting back to the bare roots of ourselves to see what will sprout. To take that leap, we must mourn the loss of things that have ended and look forward, also, to what will begin.
Now is the time to discover what hides in plain view right in front of us when there is too much color, too much other life surrounding it, to notice in other seasons. To find beauty when it seems there is none to be found. I am reminded of a dreary winter evening years ago, in another place, in a different life.
Overwhelmed and feeling like Atlas, with the weight of the world on my shoulders, my daughter climbed into my lap and took my face in her chubby little toddler hands. Trying to ask me what was the matter, she looked deeply into my eyes with more care and concern than I thought her capable of, and asked, “What matters, Mama?”. In that moment, my perspective forever changed, and the weight I had carried for far too long floated away, as if the world of Atlas were filled with helium.
There are five simple rules of life that I now live by.
First, don’t take things personally without a damn good reason.
Second, a quote from Maya Angelou, “When people show you who they are, believe them”. Inherently, people are who they are. It is better to accept that and plan accordingly, than to be repeatedly blindsided by disappointment.
Third, be kind and respectful. In turn, be someone worth respecting.
Fourth, live a life you can be proud of, right now.
And fifth, remember that you are not the author of your life’s story, but you can certainly choose to turn the pages.
*Lyrics quote courtesy of Semisonic’s “Closing Time”
I’ve got a regular gig writing for a local monthly newspaper, and since that’s pretty much the only writing I’m doing these days, I figured I should post those articles here as well. I won’t have an article in February’s issue, but other than that you can usually find me in the Calaveras Chronicle (formerly the Mountain Chronicle) if you’d like to follow along.
What Matters was originally published in the Calaveras Chronicle’s January issue, page 15.
I’m writing a little something. It’s about Blythe’s life, from my perspective. What she went through, what I went through. I feel like I need to do it now, before the memories fade too far into the past. It’s important to me that those years not be forgotten. Some day, I hope to give her story to her in book form. She deserves to know what happened.
I’m going to post bits of it here, perhaps all of it. All of this will be my first draft, to be perfected in time. I welcome your feedback, your questions, your input. In fact, I request it. Please help me get this right.
Self and Other Self
A child’s illness.
A father’s secret addiction.
A family’s journey through discovery and recovery.
I might tell you that this is a story about pain, deception and heartache. Or maybe I could say it’s about redemption and forgiveness. It is all of those things, I suppose, but at the core, this is a story about my daughter, the two people she was, and the beautiful person she has become.
Her life began as lives tend to begin. One day, a bean burrito looked appetizing after a lifetime of bean-induced revulsion, and there she was, growing inside of me. Three quarters of a year later, her dad, her 3½ year old sister Alison and I welcomed her home a few short hours after her quick trip into the world at a birth center.
Blythe slipped easily into our day to day life, a happy, healthy, contended baby who ate ravenously and slept deeply. From the very beginning, she seemed fascinated by the world around her. Sometimes I replay those first few months in my mind and I’m saddened by how remote the memories feel. There were times that I wished I could wrap myself up in them, like a heavy down blanket on a cold winter night. But they are the equivalent of an afghan. They kept me from freezing, but were riddled with holes. Why didn’t I pay closer attention, and savor each minute?
Instead, I lived life as though every day would be like that one in June, when we sat underneath the canopy of trees that grew tall and wide in front of the barn. It was deliciously warm, and the hair at the nape of Blythe’s neck was in damp spiral curls where it rested against my knees. Her feet pressed gently against the small bump of my belly where she kicked from within just a month prior.
The world revolved around us in that moment, mother and child. Her hazel eyes, not able to see more than the distance of my face according to medical science, took in the swaying leaves above our heads. As the limbs of those mighty trees danced in the summer breeze, I watched my daughter and wondered about who she would become. I couldn’t wait to find out what kind of thoughts she would have, the kinds of things that would make her laugh, what her little voice would sound like when she began to put words together.
When I play that memory in my head, I feel as though I’m in a theater, tempted to yell at the naïve and unsuspecting people on the screen to run for their lives before they are massacred by a chainsaw-wielding lunatic.
Or, perhaps more deeply, more truthfully, I want to whisper quietly in the ear of the woman I once was. I want to tell her that she should memorize every smile, and every bit of happiness. “These are the moments you will cling to,” I would say, “this is the child you will fight for. This one, right here.”
As for Blythe, that sweet and innocent baby, nothing I might say could prepare her for what she would endure in her first few years of life. But maybe I would say, “I know you. Yes, I do, and I will never give up on you.”
This morning, I woke before sunrise to get ready for a long, busy day. The house was quiet, my work out was finished, and I had 25 minutes to myself before the kids had to be up to get ready for school.
There were a dozen things I could have done in that time, all things on my to-do list, waiting for my attention. Instead, I made myself a cup of coffee and stepped out into the unmistakable feeling of a morning on the brink of autumn. I could hear the early birds all around me, catching their worms. The sky was lighting up in every direction, waiting for the sun to crest above the mountains.
In the distance I could hear a tractor chugging, making its way through the vineyard where pickers were loading bins with seven thousand pounds of grapes. In that moment, unexpectedly, I was overwhelmed with happiness and hope.
Two years ago, my life was so very different. Life as I knew it, as I planned it, was coming unraveled at a pace I couldn’t keep up with. Things were going to change. They had to. I knew some things would get better, and that some things would get worse.
I didn’t realize until this morning, watching the sunrise in this beautiful place I now get to call home…
…that I had very little hope of ever feeling this kind of happiness. In my mind, I suppose, blissful happiness was a memory, a ghost to be longed for and remembered.
I have a new life. One that I love, that my kids love. It’s been hard, this road. But when I look at where I’ve been, now that I’m here, things have a rosy hue that they didn’t have before. Now that I know where the path leads, the brambles that cut me as I hacked my way through don’t seem quite so menacing.
I wake my kids up each morning and take them to a new school, in a new place, and they are thriving. I volunteer in Blythe’s Kindergarten classroom and I think about how, if I hadn’t taken this leap of faith and moved last May, I wouldn’t have the flexibility to do that.
During the week I crunch numbers and on the weekend, I pour wine for people who are at their happiest, all on vacation and sipping wine with friends and lovers. Life is busy and full of the best of every world.
And now, with harvest in full swing, I can get sticky hand sorting grapes as they’re brought in from the vineyard. As the days, weeks and months pass, I get to watch their metamorphosis and eventually, drink the wine they will become.
Today, as I sorted through thousands of pounds of Grenache and Syrah, joking with the crush crew that has become my vineyard family, I realized something. We spend these grueling hours hand sorting every cluster of grapes, removing the bad stuff: bugs, leaves, sticks, mice, mildew… so that in the end, our hard work and patience pay off and we have the most beautiful, amazing wine to drink.
Life is much the same, is it not? I have spent enough time eliminating detritus, feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, with no end in sight.
My friends, it is time to enjoy this beautiful, amazing life. Cheers!
How do we know whether to speak up when we see that something isn’t right?
As children, we know to stick up for a child who is being picked on by the class bully. But as adults, where is the line between helping and sticking our big fat nose where it doesn’t belong, in someone else’s business?
Over the last 18 months, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the patterns and cycles of abuse – how to spot them and how to stop them. One of the things that has kept me up at night, lately, are the red flags.
Red flags are often little, subtle things that someone who is being abused might slip into conversation here and there. They are showing a glimpse of their reality, usually in a way that can be easily explained if they are called on it and decide not to open up.
Red flags are a cry for help. They are the first step to breaking the cycle of abuse. But they often go unnoticed, and the cycle remains intact. After all, they are usually so innocuous that the average person would think nothing of them.
A woman came into my place of business not long ago, and though she was a stranger, I could see red flags popping up with every word she spoke. It would have been entirely inappropriate for me, at work and in a professional capacity, to step in and say something. But I haven’t stopped thinking about her. Should I have reached out to her in some way?
I think about the woman I randomly helped the other night and I wonder – where is the difference? Do I have to wait until someone is battered and walking along the freeway to offer my help?
I think about my own red flags, and how long it took for me to raise them. How I didn’t even know I was waving them around. And how it felt for someone to notice them.
I am so lucky to have people in my life who took the time to not only recognize them for what they were, but who dared to say something and then offer to help me.
To everyone whose actions, words or thoughts went out to me and my family:
Thank you. For caring. For helping. For being there. For giving me strength. For listening. For being kind. For being patient. For everything. It is long overdue. But a day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t felt grateful for having you in my corner.
It was dusk, and shadows from nearby trees stretched across both lanes to land at the feet of the woman walking along the side of the freeway.
In a rush to get home, I was moving too quickly to stop, but slowly enough to notice that she wore nice clothes, carried a small purse, and had beautiful brunette curls that bounced against her shoulders with every step.
When I took the next exit, the girls asked where we were going and I told them that we were turning around so we could offer that woman a ride. There are no street lights along that stretch of the road, and anyway… she was miles from anywhere decent.
We pulled up just as she reached the point where two freeways merge into one, and I was relieved to have gotten there before she had to cross two lanes of traffic in semi-darkness. When I offered her a ride she hesitated, glanced back at the freeway and shivered, delicately, before nodding.
As I drove I snuck a sideways glance at my passenger and saw she was thin, in her early forties and pretty in a quiet way. She was making her way to the Greyhound bus station. The local buses had stopped running an hour before, so she had decided to walk. She hoped she could still catch a bus leaving town.
The woman told me nothing else of herself, not even her name, and I didn’t ask. She crossed her arms and looked out the window, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the thoughts running through her mind.
The bus station looked deserted as I pulled into the parking lot and I told her I hoped she could still find one tonight. She sighed, grabbed her purse and a small bag I hadn’t noticed before. “At least I’m in town now, and not on the freeway. It was scary out there.”
For the first time, she looked me full in the face and I saw her bruised right eye, her cut lip. “Thank you,” she whispered, and opened the door. At the same moment, we both saw the bloody tissue she had dropped and she snatched it up, quickly.
“It’s okay,” I said.
And for her, I hope it will be.