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My essay In Falling is published here, through the Shambhala Publications 35<35 project, personal essays from Buddhist practitioners under the age of 35.

http://www.35u35.com/submissions/in-falling/

PS’s & dedications:

*so so so much gratitude to the lovely Ms. Meredith Arena for loving me through this madness

*loves to my sister Cindy for listening out loud at the EXACT right moment

*congrats to my brother Chris for the courage to share and be himself in the world

*and always to OWL, for saving & enriching my life

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We set a date. The 16th of December. Life and death and funeral all in one. It’s the right thing to do, and well past time. I was disappointed that the 18th was Saturday, when the courts are closed up, since it seemed fitting that it should end 5 years and 6 months to the day, or 8 years and 7 months to the day of the beginning-beginning, whichever one counts in the end, if any do.

This is what I want. It’s Closure, Moving Forward.

I don’t know if anyone really thinks about the ending. I remember so many details about that first day – the bus ride to Georgetown with my friend GR, my red cashmere sweater and chunky black shoes, his baby blue pants, talking about the Pixies, how he asked me for my phone number so he could ask me on a date (“with dinner and a movie and kissing at the end”), a stolen kiss behind the club, the drive home in the back seat of his 1963 Dodge van next to the drummer’s passed out girlfriend, my twisted ankle….

And I remember so many and so few details of all the in between, which I suppose reflects the successes and failures in equal proportion. Either way, I am not repeating them here. I am not a fan of recaps even though I can play scenes from my life in my head – real and imagined – over and over again to the point of exhaustion and depression. And my point is that there was a lot of living even when it wasn’t exciting. Or perfect. That we did bear witness to each other’s mundane and extraordinary. And that in some ways there’s more intimacy in watching someone pick out fruit or learn to cook or demolish a wall or garden in the rain or sign a dissolution decree than there is in anything else. That the day-to-day is where we live, moment to moment, each and every one of us.

In the clarity of this defeat, I see myself and where I hold on. I resist who I am because I cannot let go of what I am not. I see it again and again – here in this day, there in the past long before I crossed paths with then-husband, and in the future where I am always raw and incomplete and never enough.

I long for something rough, and pull out From the Burnpile.  The cello and Madigan’s voice match and settle my mood while I cook rice with stock, turmeric & chipotle onions, and saute carrots with leftover spinach (with cinnamon!) and black beans for dinner.

I’m trying to write you a love song
because I know it’s time you heard one
I’m trying to write you a love song
because somewhere you know you’re someone

Come tell me about yr dreams coming true
I need you to
Come tell me about your dreams coming true

The snow has laid down blankets and the cold air forms ice as the wind sweeps the trees clean and the sky drops more flakes, alternating between perpendicular and sideways. I watch it swirl like a breaking wave, change direction, and gust in sheets to the south. The window rattles against the wind. The cat is curled at my left thigh and purrs when I brush against his coat. OWL sleeps peacefully through the storm, maybe with good dreams about our afternoon walk in the whitened landscape in his red snow suit, a knee-high gnome with his green car in one hand, hairbrush in the other.

But I can’t write the love song. I can’t seem to right the story. All I can do is crawl into the bed and pull the covers over OWL’s body as he sleeps, his cool feet finding the side of my colder right thigh, and weep.

Future happiness included, of course.

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NOVEMBER 11th

Time moves slow.  The ache of the heart a long slow cracking after the initial break.  Thousands of aftershocks that travel across a year, add months, count the days.  New mistakes stream in and stretch out inside the ravines, touch the canyon walls, and flow on top of the scars.

Take stock of the present.  Orange lamp hangs overhead and casts its familiar glow on the pillow and couch, on my fingers as they move over keys and trace lines in my journal.  Silent apartment, save the passing the planes and occasional scuffing of boots on the sidewalk or wheels turning over wet leaves.  Yesterday’s breakfast pan soaks in the sink.  A cold beer on the windowsill.

From my ledge I see other people in the open sky.  The vast space around them as they touch hands, unwrap gifts from tissue paper, smile in ways that communicate the complexity of joy and sadness and living.  I see what I hoped for in my life and my family and my love, and know that it didn’t complete me the way I thought it would, the way I wanted and needed, because I wouldn’t let myself be whole.  I cannot imagine building a new life, although I know I’m doing it everyday.  Dish by dish, word by word, moment to moment.

2010 harvest moon photographed by chris updegrave

Notice that my body marks its own time, with signals that fall outside the calendar of dates and anniversaries.  Another harvest moon rises and pins me to the spot, to the moment.  Memories stored in the quality of light, released by the Fall chill settling in the air.  The memory of organs swell the body.  The well of sadness opened by the senses and the body’s recollections.  But this time there is a quiet joy marching alongside.  It’s new and weak at times, but gaining strength and momentum.  I stand on this edge and my lungs clench.  I see the size of my wounds, so long in the making and don’t know if I can cross to the other shore.  If the scars can soften and stretch and let in the light and air.  I hear another bottle break on the sidewalk outside through the closed window and know there will be something to clean up in the morning.

Time moves fast.  OWL’s growth, so ordinary and so exceptional, impossible to track.  Loose notes on the calendars waiting to be transcribed into a baby book.  The feel of those moments so vivid at the time hardly seem describable now.  Watch as baby C, now 4 months old, gorillas sits with his fists on the floor as he slumps forward, and marvel as he pops up.

NOVEMBER 7th

In the morning after a previously amazing day and an evening spent writing in tears, I lay across my bed and mark what is right.  What is going well.  A two page list in columns, turquoise ink.

OWL is healthy.
He talks & talks & signs.
Trots around with little stroller.
Sleeps clutching books like The Secret Life of Plants and Crime & Punishment.
We have heat.
The cat snuggled me through last night’s sadness.
I can read.
I have a practice.
I write.
I walk and run, and sometimes cartwheel.
OWL stomps through puddles in frog rain boots.
OWL & baby A hold hands.
He kicks a ball.
I laugh, cry & feel.
Sweep the floors that ground us.
Cook the food that nourishes us.
We ride buses.
Have teeth to brush.
Bodies to wash.

On the cushion later that morning, the sangha shoulder to shoulder in staggered rows, I open without cracking.  I carry myself back up to that eye-level view of Mt Rainier, and sense my presence among the other mountains, my icy peaks rising above the blankets of green.  The sky passes and mingles, the clouds appear and dissipate.  And I think, I could do this anywhere.  On my feet.  In a courtroom.  At breakfast.  I can be this mountain among mountains anytime.  Struck by the sheer confidence of the open sky.

By nightfall, I slip back down.  Self-arresting, I land not at the bottom, but catch myself in a point of utter aloneness that is sad but not sorry.  It carries me a ways outside the room.  To a place without walls.  All I want is OWL in my arms, in this room, among these friends.  Wait anxiously as the openness battles the rising fear of seeing the ex in the coming exchange.  The fear of directly seeing the embodiments of my failures and success from the open sky where my heart beats raw and tender.  I feel exposed by the moment where everyone around me seems transformed and held by something that I’m not even sure I get.  I feel quiet.  OWL arrives and my world tumbles together and in to pieces all at once.

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Quite a week or weekend around here, or whatever the semi-graciously unemployed call 5 sequential days.  Forms at the doctor’s office.  Sex: female.  Children: yes. Marital Status: foreclosed.  I mean, divorced.  Divorcing, actually.  Mind wonders back to the first question.  Sex: maybe, eventually.  Hopefully sooner than later.

A Saturday to clean.  Top to bottom.  East to west.  OWL’s walk-in-closet-turned-bedroom, my bedroom, bathroom, hallway.  Living room, the clothes-sewing-crafting-photographs-storage-closet.  Look for thoughts & lessons & learning between reshelving scattered board books and discovering 3 of the 7 stacker rings under the bedroom blanket.  Tender flood of excitement about a good friend’s pregnancy, knowing that one day soon she too will find these treats hidden in their bed.  Sooner than seems possible, but I see how quickly time marches & swirls forward & about these days.  Imagine lessons & hopes under clean sheets warmed last night only by me and the curled up cat.  Clean floors.  Folded clothes. Empty dresser tops.

Sit at an old table.  Beer in the early evening darkness.  Light rain kissing the air on its way down.  He wears a shirt I’ve never seen before.  Looks faded & old & soft, like something I want to curl up against, feel the heat of his shoulder through the flannel threads.  Instead we exchange books, keys, a mug.  Words say part of what I want to say, but so much of it is a feel, a spectrum of time & place – a currency I cannot exchange over drinks.  Drive home under the weight of absolute ease turned to an absolute goodbye.  Who would have thought ironic detachment was bullshit? Well, me.  But I always second guess myself.  Move on to the kitchen.  Dishes. Countertops.  Pantry.  Table.  Dust shelves and baseboards.  Mop floor.  Sulk out in the cool wet evening to avoid watching a scary movie alone.  To avoid 9 pm sleep on a Saturday.  To avoid the silent & blank screen of my phone.  To avoid no more words.  Sometimes it feels like life is only for other people.  But the rain runs rapids down 15th Avenue East, pools and moves on.  Recall the texture in the gap between the out & the in-breath.  My life runs in those rapids, snags on branches & rolls over leaf jams & around crumpled potato chip bags.  It’s just not very glamorous.

Rain cascades in sheets, white-orange under the glow of street lights.  I dry & sit & drink & stand & listen & drink.  And talk.  Life without the details, without the storyline.  Feel human.  Memories in this place strong.  Late night dance floor spins with the sister.  Wedding song slow dancing.  Sold out club.  Me, at the end of the night.  Standing.  Dancing.  Beaming.  A million years ago.  In the rain I discover that I was a witness, too.  Select groceries & cook meals.  Buy textbooks & study astronomy.  Performances.  Tears.  Witnessed you curl your fingers around OWL’s endlessly small fist minutes after he was born, hold his face against your cheek. Stand in the room of this bar and see my life in the running rapids and hard sheeting rain.  Feel my life in the smoke as it drifts inside towards the warm air. People come & go.  Short exchanges & extended stays.  Long breaks.  Years of friendship. Rekindle & break.  Kids as common ground.  I cycle through it all – roar like a lion and sleep like a lamb.

Four full days in solo mode.  Four days of decadence & endings.  Out late. Foreclosed. Mopping floors.  Nyinthun in hangover.  Hostessing & food & wine. Good friends & old friends & new friends.  A little little baby learning to roll & watch this world.  Pick up OWL from his papa only to find, within a few hours, an absolutely transformed creature shouting & twisting & convulsing with “no-no-no-no-no’s” and the strength to back it up.  Goat-like resolve.  Tangle in car seat straps.  Walk home carrying his crying shaking body parallel to the ground.  Shrieks induced by everything.  Diapers.  PJ’s. Stroller parking.  Socks.  Sweatshirt.  Bathtub.   Hand-washing.  A 5 minute temper tantrum is an eternity.

I’ll say it again.  A 5 minute temper tantrum squeezing through the lungs & throat & mouth and twisting body of a 16-month old is an eternity.  And there I am in that eternity: foreclosed, divorcing, solo, incapable of doing it all, not everything, faking my way through, not x-y-z enough, jobless.  No gaps or breaths or breaks, no full nights sleep.  In that eternity, there is a full sink of dishes, unswept floors, laundry spinning about in machines & reproducing in the corners, diaper covers to air dry, a noisy cat to feed & scratch & snuggle, the next snack to prepare….

It takes every ounce of my strength & courage at 6:27 am to throw the blankets over my head, find my silly voice.  The voice, with an audible smile, giggling “Where’s Mama?”  Peek out & hear the echo of my giggles.  Duck back under as happy snorts dry big puffy tears.  Footsteps racing to the bed.  Outstretched arms.  Lift & snuggle. The courage to coo and play.  Fearlessness to let the eternity dissolve into the emptiness.  To let my solid mythical self dissolve into the emptiness.  The compassion to come back to it again & again.

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Cool morning warm day cold night.  Scarf and coat to none to leggings.  Sleep-weary too early, OWL runs through the park across the street under the faded day, steps up and steps down low stairs on his own two feet.  No knees.  No big hands holding his tiny hands lifting & steadying.  His body sways and balances.  About face at the top and down.  Something new.  Just today.  Shriek & go-go-go to the alley.  Big hands call & make freeze.  Learning the boundaries, an edge of predictable safety. Planes as lights in the darkening sky.  Tramping along the garden path, learning boundaries set by twine & enforced by big hands.  Walk benches like a tightrope, small hands holding big index fingers.  Smiles in the dark.  Lap-sitting and snuggles on the cool concrete.  Skips the bath for a bottle.  Stories in mama’s bed.  The Ear Book.  Owl Babies.  Who Hoo Are You? Diaper & PJ’s & Goodnight Moon. Rolling snuggles.  Lullabies.  15 seconds of tears.  Sleep.

Garbanzo beans begin their evening soak on the stove.  Tomatoes red & yellow & purple & green ripen on the windowsill, inching towards the altar.  Tomorrow we bake a chicken and beans with yogurt sauce & smoked paprika.  Need to buy more tomatoes.  Cookies if I pull it all together.  This is the mama I want to be.  Prepared. Cooking & baking.  Fresh food.  Made with love.  With care & mindfulness.  With small hands stirring veggies as they saute, mixing flour & salt, nibbling chocolate chips, cutting shapes from freshly rolled sheets of dough.  Tomorrow, I think I can pull it off.  Even though I sleep to a sink full of dirty dishes and dream about SF’s 50-lb bag of flour & non-existent glass jars full of pasta & cornmeal.

OWL’s appetite graduates to teenager.  He sneaks off with 2 pears, one right after the other, out from the fruit bowl & into the living room.  Eats them both entirely. Including most of the seeds from the 2nd one since it was hidden from my view longer than the 1st.  Dinner plate full of turkey sausages & chard & yogurt.  2 cups of water.  Slice of almond butter toast before bed, eaten like a cat.  Face & mouth & tongue & no hands.   The bulk of yesterday spent scrambling eggs, slicing up cheese & plums, toasting crumpets, sauteing squash (from SF’s garden), cutting tofu into squares, dishing up 3 servings of pasta….  16 months today, but I cannot imagine him any other way.  “Old” videos prove me wrong.  Learning to crawl, inching & grunting forward off a blanket.  Fingers clumsily find a chunk of avocado and rub it across his once-chubby face.  Fingers and fruit finally find mouth.  One tooth vs the now 6.  Crawling now a novelty, an act undertaken with great laughs.  Forks & spoons & open cups.  The banana-lock on the back right side of his head made by many meals & a dislike of wet soapy hair.

Another day.  Beans cooked before 9:30 am, scents the apartment with an earthy sweetness.  Talk on the phone with a good friend that I miss even though we are less than 10 miles apart, prepare and bake the chicken.  Drop the raw breast halves (yes, plural), on the floor.  Forget to reserve some of the spice mixture for the chicken.  Forget to add the salt.  So much for made with mindfulness. But the baking is at least completed.  And she was the only one who called about the latest articles in the papers, and it felt good to talk, even when I was spinning backwards in time.  Sometimes reopening things brings compassion and dissolution.  Funny word. Tomorrow the house forecloses.  Working to finish the divorce before a January trial date.  Ugh.  Ready for closed chapters already.  Ready to untether.

What are you afraid of? I am afraid of what I cannot provide my son.
Thank you.  What are you afraid of? I am afraid of being a single parent.
Thank you.  What are you afraid of? I am afraid of never working again.
Thank you.  What are you afraid of? Decisions that I need to make.  Decisions that impact my son, my future, my ex.  Grad school.  Moving.  Moving him away.
Thank you.  What are you afraid of? That things will never change.
Thank you.  What are you afraid of? Bell rings.  Exchange stops.  Silent.

Contemplate.  Bring the fear closer.  Gentle.  Explore.  Accept.  Open.  My fear diminishes, although it doesn’t disappear, as I feel myself say the words out loud. Air passes through my throat.  Sound emerges.  Audible breath.  I hear my voice. Eyes and eyelids and cheeks feel the tears.  The heat.  The clenching lungs.  The taste of salt.  But in the silence that follows my confessions, I cannot recall my fears, their feel & presence & my experience.  I sit in silence and think of kissing.  Not anyone in particular, just the peculiar nature of two pairs of lips meeting, tasting, playing, exploring.  Teeth and tongues.  Softness and sweetness and dry skin. Placement of hands.  What the leafy shadows outside on the rail would look like cast across two necks leaning towards each other.

Walk downstairs.  OWL toddles among the legs, clad in airplane PJ’s, tote bag full with his shirt & pants.  His cheeks rosy red from the cool outside and sleepiness.  I catch his eye & he smiles, teeters forward, shows me his bag.  I slide the straps over his shoulder and he prances forth, back the way he came.  He eats cookies and sips my cooled tea.  Follows SF into the bathroom, TA chases him from the kitchen with smiles & giggles, and he climbs the couch to visit RR & D.  He runs circles.  I stand in place, roar as he passes.  He laughs that OWL laugh.  He is home here.  Comfortable eating & playing & hanging out while mama sits upstairs confessing her fears and practicing the presence of mind he masters without a thought, without a second guess.  Roar again as he passes and know.  This is all worth while.

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A day of touching sadness.  Touching and not turning away.  No running.  Stopping the (in my head) conversations before they ran wild.  Breathing through.  Leaning in.  Moist eyes easily disguised as water from the bright sun.  Squinting down the hill, feeling the heavy mask of sadness as I board the bus.  As I flip through a magazine in the waiting room.

The list of what I want grows longer and longer.  Adding every day.  Someone to help change the crib sheets.  The surprise of an empty kitchen sink.  A grilled steak. Snapped back to the moment by dancing descent of yellow leaves as they catch the sun like coals from a fire and glitter on-off on-off on-off like fireflies but in the blue blue sky of this day.  And I wonder about my list for OWL.  What do I want for him? Health.  Nourishment.  Knowledge.  Confidence.  Love & happiness.  Fearlessness. At home with himself.  To see me happy and….  I don’t even finish the thought in words.  Funny, how that inserts itself into every nook & cranny, every list, every hope & fear.  Almost a year and I am still not comfortable.  This feels a mess.  Divorce.  Foreclosure.  Unemployment.  Living in the land where it seems like everyone is either married or gay.  Or 23.  Flying solo.  Wandering the trails, OWL in pack, while friends hunker down for family time.  Cooking 3 meals a day and at least 2 snacks.  No yoga.

But I also know that we are all very lucky.  No one is being beaten.  Or overfed like the sad 14-month old giant I saw on the bus this afternoon.  Or underfed.  We never worry about where to sleep.  OWL  is surrounded, blanketed, by love and acceptance and encouragement.  He learns.  Absorbs like a sponge.  He watches and imitates and acts.  He is bold.  Independent.  A snuggler.  I talk to his father often.  The three of us have polite family lunches where OWL is the star, even though I am at a slight distance.

But lucky because things could be worse does not always cut it.  Today it doesn’t calm the sting of the sadness.  But it doesn’t pin me to the floor me either.  I look at it and see my fears and hopes for what they really are.  Alone is scary.  Terrifying even.  Mama & OWL do not fit the definition of family I never even knew that I carry so very deeply.  The presence of absence surrounds me, not him.  Because what I want for him is to have my definition of family right here, in our apartment, and this alternative version we have reflects that I cannot give him everything I want. Whether it’s for him or me or for us, I am not enough.  Today, touching that sadness, not turning away and leaning in, I begin to see that this okay.  It may even be good news.  A relief.  I grant myself permission to not be everything.

Looking at OWL through this broken heart, I am learning that I truly have nothing to do with who he is, and yet everything to do with nurturing that being and opening the space for him to flourish.  Introduce him to the world.  Watch him try new things and have the wisdom to let him fall sometimes.  The compassion to wipe away tears, blow on “ouies,” and hold him to my chest when he just needs to scream it off.  And looking at myself through this broken heart, I start seeing the wisdom in a cooling sheet of fresh-baked cookies next to our dinner plates full of tofu, kale, potatoes & corn.  Seeing and tasting and smelling the fruits of our family night.  Permission to redefine it all by looking honestly below the surface and leaning in.  And in those moments of squinting damp eyes and aching, joy joins the sadness as I begin to understand that everything I need, I already have.

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