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Three’s a Crowd

Yesterday we had a couple of visitors. The first, a woman who’s made a few trips over here before and starting to seem like a stalker. On her initial visit (or at least the first I’ve witnessed), she drove up the driveway and from her car answered my craned neck Can I help you? gaze from my deck explaining she was, “looking at the house,” adding, “I own this house.” I didn’t think I heard her correctly so I asked her again, at which point she got out, stood beside her car and said it over and over, as if still trying to convince herself. She instructed me to simply look online and I could see this obvious truth for myself. She kept asking me if I was the renter of the house (she now owned), and I stuck with the only answer I knew: “No, we own it.” I pressed her on the address she was looking for, and she flashed a stuck on smile reserved for folks who don’t seem quite right, and replied, “Thank you!” Again and again, we did this question and smiling thank you dance until she drove off, taking five or six turns to get down the drive. Bless her heart, she can’t remember where’s she’s going, what she has or hasn’t purchased, nor can she execute the simple two turn maneuver it takes to leave.

That was last weekend. Yesterday’s visit was again short but not what you’d call sweet, her zooming up the drive in her trusty Maxima, and me, iPhone weapon in hand shooting her Fulton Co. plates. Both sets of police, my town’s and the college’s across the street, are on to her. Her perseverance is impressive, and her reverse turns have improved, too. It looks like the internet was wrong this time, though, and damn if we don’t still own the place. Us and the bank, that is.

Clark2018This lady with twisted hair and mind to match stayed with me all day. She made me think of my boundaries and the house I live in, vowing to protect them more fiercely than ever. I’m home a lot as is my protective German shepherd, and this wonderfully old historic home needs us to protect it just as we need the same from it. It may be old, but it’s strong.

So I’m rolling along last night fashioning leftovers into what I hope will be a tasty dinner. That spaghetti I dusted with parmesan and pats of butter a few days ago joined up with rotisserie chicken and broccoli, and ginger and garlic, too. A few shakes of sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce christened it a stir fry, and a surprisingly damn good one at that. Sriracha gave it its kick, and we hovered over our bowls, savoring the spicy finish.

Next on the menu was a call to Google Wifi to hopefully help our spotty internet and tv connections. The nice lady on the phone was doing her best to work with the vacant space in my brain where tech savvy is supposed to reside. I bought Google Wifi extenders at Costco who proclaimed them idiot-proof: plug them in and go. Liars.

The lady is hanging in there with me, but seems I’ve now checked out, and am scanning the cluttered counters, the remains of the day, stir fry dishes, clean dishes to put away, paperwork and assorted stuff. Each item seems miles away from its respective home, and several items don’t have one. And then I saw it. Like a quick flash in your mind when you’re not sure if you’ve got a large floater orbiting your eyeball or a good-sized mouse roaming your counter. It was door number two, I’m afraid. We didn’t lock eyes; there wasn’t time. She cowered behind the stove instead while I insisted Ms. Google Wifi and I talk another time.

stoveSo twisted lady is thankfully out of the drive, but now I’ve got Mrs. Tittlemouse hanging around my kitchen. The cats and dog did a few laps in here, which I hoped was for catching her scent for the cat and mouse game scheduled for later on. I cleaned up the kitchen still eyeing the stove’s left edge. With dishwasher now running and papers ready for me at the table, I surveyed the room again, as I’d done repeatedly since our first meeting a half hour ago. She reappeared, hoping the coast was clear, and when our eyes locked, she wore an oh, shit! mouse in headlights expression, and decided behind the stove was where she’d actually meant to go. She was adorable, nothing like the rats I’ve met over the years, though thankfully not at this house.

In ten years here, I’ve only seen one other mouse, this one entering through a hole in our dining room baseboard. I went to corner it so it would exit where it came in, and we paused to look at one another. He (I have to assume it was Mr. Tittlemouse this time) stood on his tippy toes offering a Please dear God don’t hurt me! plea. His sweet face combined with my own fear, and I didn’t dare. I shuffled him along gently, like the Grinch sending Cindy Lou Hoo back to bed. We closed in that hole and never heard from him again.

The cat is exhausted and still keeping watch in his spot above the kitchen cabinets. I’m left wondering if my guests have checked out once and for all. I love company, but these two strains just aren’t my cup of tea. On with the day. Peace.

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connection, hope, loss

Seabirds, Sadness & Sunshine

gannet on beach
Walking on the beach recently, I saw a beautiful, unusually large seabird. He wasn’t flying overhead in search of dinner or migrating with his flock. He wasn’t flying at all actually. He was on the sand, sitting, feet tucked under him, staring out at the ocean like the other beachgoers scattered along the water’s edge. We approached slowly and saw he was nervous, barely flapping his wings, and we could tell he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. The tide was coming in and he just stared as if lost in thought. I have to assume seabirds think.

We worried about him but after all the wing flapping gave him space and walked further down the beach to lunch. A few hours later, we returned to find the scene mostly unchanged except the tide moving in and our bird now drifting out. I went to him again, talking quietly, and after a few attempts he let me stroke his white feathered back. The tide kept on with its work and I rolled up my pant legs to begin my own. His long beak meant no harm as he turned his head to look back, feeling my hands cupping underneath him. The tide continued and so did I with two more rounds of gently carrying him further up the beach to dry sand, trying to outpace the tide. We knew we couldn’t just leave him to drown, and thankfully call after call finally turned up a rescue who said they were on their way.

We sat with him for an interminable hour wondering when help would come, scanning the beach for someone resembling this bird’s hero. Eventually she walked toward us, an older woman with long dark grey streaked hair and tanned outstretched hands, loving and worn, ready to help. She told us our bird was a gannet and thought the strong northeast winds had tired him out and kept him from migrating. Before she took him, I talked to him again, stroking his back, endless layers of stacked white feathers, soft as rose petals. He turned to look at me as if he knew, knew I loved him, knew I was rooting for him, knew I had his back.

 

The rescue assured me they’d update us on his progress and texted the next day to say they tube fed him right away and he had enjoyed a fish before bed. Our boy, however, didn’t make it. She told me I did the right thing and could tell right away he was weak. She said they usually give a struggle and a loud “aakk, aakk, aakk” and try to bite. Our bird had only sat quietly looking ahead.

Structures and bodies weaken and give out and we are left behind remembering how things were and imagining how they will be. My friend’s adored pup died recently, and I see my own rapidly aging before me. A family friend is divorcing, and I remember his wedding and the bridesmaid’s dress I wore. A dear girlfriend has suffered unimaginable loss with her husband’s abrupt passing. Even Paris once again is hurting, this time it’s her centuries old Notre Dame who is forever changed, but who will rise again. As I write this, millions of dollars have already been raised to rebuild her.

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With every event, every loss, every tear, you can see love emerging and growing. As if there’s a rheostat and the dial has unlimited clockwise turns, unlimited brightness if you should want or need it. Nearby friends and those far away appear and gather and support each other, people connect as they lean in to help, and we remind each other that we are here for one another, here where we’ve been all along.

It’s not just the bird. When things happen, as they do in droves sometimes, I can’t turn off my impulse to dive in headfirst into the vast sadness, to rescue, repair or reverse whatever has gone so terribly wrong, and I’m disheartened and still surprised to find how little control I actually have. There is no pretty bow you can tie around pain or loss. You go through it and, if you’re fortunate to be surrounded by love and support, you come out the other side stronger. Nor is there a recipe for supporting someone in pain. Showing up and listening are probably the first two ingredients.

There is a time to be born, and a time to die. And in the pain, through the tears there is sunshine. Sometimes the shadows are thick and the shade feels cold, but the cycle keeps on, the sun shining, the rain falling. I think back to our bird, our sweet gannet, and remember there was something we could do. We could sit with him, reassure him, protect and hold him, feed him what he needs, make the smartest choices we could and release him. I’d like to think he’s flying overhead high up in heaven reunited with his group. I think they all are.

The point is I guess, the reason we are here together, is… love each other, love each other hard. Sit still in the moment, stroke your dog’s head, rub your partner’s shoulders, enjoy some good food in your belly before bed. We can’t know how much time there is, but we can look around and do something now. Instead of adding insult to injury, maybe the sadness that seeps in after a loss is a reminder of the love? A reminder you are still here. Wherever you are right now, with the people around you and the people you remember, you have made and still are making a difference. To love and be loved: that’s a whole lot.

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self care, Self reliance

Help Yourself

For as long as I can remember, I’ve practiced caring for others. My own self-care, as we call it today, amounted to brushing my teeth and bathing. As a child, I ate the things I liked that were put before me, typical meals of pot roast, spaghetti, or fried chicken, with white rice, buttered noodles and corn. The boiled to death cabbage, lima beans and peas I would put in my napkin, excuse myself from the table and head to the powder room to flush them down the toilet, or try to go unnoticed and feed it to the dog under the table. We had loads of other stuff in the house too, none of it checking the self-care box: Fruit Loops, Ritz crackers, fun size Milky Ways, 2-liter bottles of Sprite and root beer, and King Dons. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, there was maraschino cherry juice to wash it all down with, the jar in the fridge door. My exercise in high school amounted to playing on the tennis team, swimming in summer, occasionally jogging and generally running around, thinking and talking quickly, tightly strung like the tennis rackets I owned through the years, the Wilson junior valiant, Miss Chris and Chris Evert Autograph.

But enough about me. Back to the others. Hold the door, write your thank you notes, pass the (insert whatever is on the table) and then you can have one. Certainly, good manners are important to observe, but I think with the overt nudges from my mother, this practice went deeper. The idea that you always bat last was seeped into my soul at a very early date. It’s a wonder I was born before my twin, instead of letting him go first. Maybe he was a gentleman from the get go, and instead held the door open for me, insisting that his sister go in front.

It seems all the shoulds were always swirling in my conscience, with my mom running down her list before or even in lieu of ever asking me about me. Did you do your homework? Set the table? Make your bed? Clean the ring in the tub? At the end of every bath we’d sit in the tub, still full of water, bubbles now burst, and shake Ajax on a small sponge and as instructed, scrub the grimy tub ring surrounding us. Ingenious on our mother’s part, because who likes cleaning tubs? I look back and wonder if she ever took stock of the day for herself or her family, past the to dos. Was the day good? Or did you struggle? Are you making friends in your classes? Did you do anything interesting today? Would you like to talk about it, or can I do anything to help?

As a little girl I had a sudden, isolating bout of insomnia. Most nights I could hear my family one by one drift off to sleep, all of us upstairs in our house, and I was left wide eyed, lying there awake, which of course branded me the first one a burglar would get. It didn’t matter that we were never burgled, or that we had a 110 lb. German Shepherd who would protect us; it was forefront in my mind. I begged my sister to teach me how to fall asleep and, like the rest of the family, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You just lie there and it happens.” Like swallowing or sneezing, the practice was automatic, and it worked every time for everyone, pets included. Everyone, except me.

My dad decided that a few nights each week the two of us would go on walks before dinner, several miles to the end of our street and back. Early on in our regimen, all the walking caused whatever was running in my head to stop and join me and also drift to sleep. I loved these walks, just the two of us, where I felt special and cared for with no siblings along, and loved him doing something just for me.

Later, there were the couple of years when I was the last child in the house, the other two now off to college, one graduated. My parents were divorcing and had been sleeping in separate rooms. I used my mom’s bathroom in the mornings to get ready since it had a grownup vibe and a drawer full of makeup: a bottle of Revlon tawny beige foundation, but no blush, blue eye shadow and the skinniest silver tube of mascara. My Bonne Bell lip smackers tinted gloss completed the look, and the mini Susan Woody went out into the world.

Occasionally in the bathroom I’d see notes taped to the mirror and one time found a message scrawled directly on the glass in lipstick in my mom’s handwriting, which read, I will not be your scapegoat. I had no clue what this meant, but knew it wasn’t a sexy love note between my parents. This marital anti-bliss vibe ate at me, and as a result, I ate too. I’d cook a Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese after eating a full meal and eat the whole thing, or I’d grab an entire stack of Chips Ahoy cookies from the cookie jar, and then tear the plastic off a package of lady fingers and dive in, or nosh on fun size candy bars chewing the nougat and caramel, feeling it coat my teeth. All the tennis playing and wired-ness I possessed couldn’t offset this eating, and I began to want to purge myself of these binges.

One night while my dad sat in our den in his wing chair drinking Budweiser from a can and reading The Atlanta-Journal, as he did most nights, I asked him what you give kids who have swallowed poison, that thing you take to throw up. He asked me again what I was talking about, eyes still fixed on his paper, and when I repeated my question, he replied, “Ipecac.” “Can you spell that?” I asked. He did and I wrote it down.

Thus began a new chapter of self-care, one of eating and purging. I had chalked it up to my desire to stay thin, but it dawned on me just a few years ago that this bulimic season in my late teens occurred at precisely the same time as my parents’ separation. I don’t remember all the details, but I do know it was unsettling to see my sister’s bed unmade each day, knowing she hadn’t surprised us by coming home from college, but rather my dad slept in there. Or to come home from school late after tennis practice to find the house quiet, my plate of dinner warming in the oven, my mom in bed for the night. It was eerily soundless yet the house was perfectly neat, the fridge full and pets cared for, as if invisible elves were tending to all these things, while my mom stayed largely out of sight.

I’m not sure if it was the silence screaming loudly in our big house or the tawdry lipstick note, but this tense undercurrent didn’t sit well inside me. The self-care I chose was the only way I could control something, a way to give me the best of both worlds: eat comforting foods but not let them show. A little swig of Ipecac, my private salve, and no one would ever know. Thankfully it only happened a handful of times and then I stopped.

My self-care practice has gotten much better, and if I am going to continue to improve, there are three things I must remember:

1) What you eat stays with you, assuming you’ve dropped the propensity for purging, and you should choose good things, not the comfort foods from tv or grabbing your attention in the grocery aisles. The truly good for you comforting ones are those you’ve known all along, the things you adore, like home grown tomatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken and grilled fish, or a really good meatloaf. Salads you can tell were made with care with soft washed lettuces, avocado, grated carrot, thin cucumber slices, sunflower seeds, too. Homemade bread and eggs scrambled with cream cheese and snipped chives, pasta carbonara with whisked egg yolk, sugar cured bacon and plenty of parmigiano reggiano cheese, or steamed haricot vert with a little butter and salt and cracked pepper. Strawberries dusted with powdered sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar, a fistful of bing cherries or a plump satsuma orange at Christmastime, its cheery leaf like a holly’s.

2) Exercise flattens anxiety, your stomach too, and builds bone. There are the walks too, no longer with my dad, but with my dog in my neighborhood, or the long ones you take at the beach, wet sand underfoot, pelicans overhead diving for dinner, soaring over the sea. There is jogging and 10K races that leave you feeling strong with a smile on your face that lasts days. There are your bones, exactly 206 of them, which carried you into adulthood and will still carry you if you work them, move them with the earth under you, walk, run and lift, each time pushing yourself to do more.

3) Sleep is delicious brain food and like exercise, cuts the edge off a bad mood. My insomnia has all but gone and I am a good sleeper, rarely waking even during two pregnancies. Our bodies know what we need and if you’re like me and falling asleep in front of the tv and can’t get through a show, or at the kitchen table with dishes still to do, or worse, on the stair landing where you stopped to sit for just a minute, you ought to get yourself to bed. All these things that you do, that you work at, that you keep up, all of them will wait for you when you are ready. And you’re ready only after you’ve cared for you.

It’s easy to defer to your factory default setting and focus on everyone else, but in adopting this holy trifecta of eating, sleeping and moving, you can reset and shift back to you, where you’ve always been all along. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly put it, Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

I’m not sure why these obvious, common sense things — which all of us learned out of the gate — have taken decades to sink in, but I’m encouraged to finally realize that self-care begins with self.

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Me, circa the early ‘70s, modeling my new go go boots.

 

Atlanta, Nature

Spring Forward

IMG_7897It’s official! Spring has sprung. Before the mosquitos and the pollen, the poison ivy and the palmetto bugs, we should get ourselves out there. It’s a hopeful heat, not yet summer’s impending sauna or fall’s don’t get too used to this warmth. It’s a pool where the water is great, not bathwater, not a polar plunge, just refreshing, and so you want to jump in. It’s a verb too. Spring leaps, pays, stretches out, rises, arises, resets, springs forward, and gives momentum, movement, rebirth, and a restart. Everything is profoundly awake.

Coming out of winter, spring’s days are clear and bright, and everything’s green and sharp and in focus. Like the vision you’re after when at your eye exam your doctor has you test out different strength lenses, asking, do you like “this or that?”, “that or this?” Each time you blink, your tears reset your view, and you go on eliminating lenses, getting to your best vision. That clarity, that prescription you need, that looks like spring.

The owls are loud, high up in tree branches looking for love, and the other birds never stop singing. Right on time, everything shows up and does its part. Nothing seems to bog any of it down, except maybe competing for sunlight and losing or needing a meal but instead becoming one. For the most part, though, things unfurl, uncoil, and bloom, and belt out unlimited encores. There’s even an azalea named for that.

Once it shows up, you can’t not see spring. It’s there out my window right now, showing off. Budding tree branches stretch over blue skies, and the partial light from late winter now covers the whole yard. There’s purple loropetalum, pink redbud trees, and things to cut and bring inside, and every shade of green you can imagine, a living Lilly Pulitzer landscape.

IMG_7229Even though I’m wearing a wool sweater over my t-shirt, my face is getting a sunburn. I toggle between sweater off, then on again, and repeat. My pale arms haven’t seen the sun for months, and this warmth that seems like it’s sticking around is welcome to stay. This show is blowing through town and you really ought to see it to appreciate the next. Without spring , summer feels sudden, stale, thick, stifled, one big hot mess after winter. Spring is that baby step which escorts you into summer, leaves your dry skin soft again, your face and hair sun kissed. With or without you, the show is going on, but maybe it will rub off on you, literally. Smell Easter lilies up close and their stamens will give you a pollen yellow nose that lasts until your next shower, longer if you don’t scrub it with a washcloth.

Spring cleans, organizes, restarts. Big things are happening. Blooming. Growing up tall. The days are longer, your coats are put away, and you notice the sun streaks in your hair. The markets’ strawberries are the size of a child’s fist, and there’s asparagus, leeks, lettuces and peas too.

It’s hard to beat Atlanta in the spring. Each year outdoes the last. Like when your kids are a certain age, say three, or eight, or twelve, and you think to yourself, this is the best age, and the next year you’re saying it again for that age. I do this with spring, the great green ballet, with beautifully dressed dancers fluttering across the stage. One group exits and the next, even more dazzling, goes in. The show pulls you in and dazzles.

IMG_8167It’s earliest showing is in February. Camellias are blooming, daffodils are up, forsythia too, red bud trees sprout purple beads, and white and pink dogwoods, azaleas and kousa dogwoods bloom. No longer drooped from winter, pansies sit up, and lilly of the valley bunches appear in the yard. Add in the holidays too — Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter — and you’re feasting on chocolates, green beer and Cadbury cream eggs.

As far as resets go, spring is better than the new year. The heavy eggnog is gone, the tree is out of the house, ornaments and decorations are packed up, and the pressure of resolution keeping has passed. It’s just you and this burst of a season. Extract everything from it you can because, like an awesome sunrise, it will be gone with a blink.

Even with all this green underfoot and blue above, some years, you just don’t feel it. There’s been a lot going on lately, globally and locally. Several incidents in my community have happened, deeply affecting friends and families I know. Big, sad tragic things, and silly, unfortunate ones, too. Unlike the light fluttery season tugging at us to pay attention, these things weigh us down, like winter.

Spring can be too much, too bright, and too sudden, and you squint wondering where you left your sunglasses. There’s a pressure to take advantage of this new weather, walk in the park, put down a blanket and eat something nourishing in the sun or under a tree. You get to the store on a weekend thinking you’ll buy something to plant, but it’s all too much, the nursery teeming with people and choices of things to care for and nurture. You don’t match the scene; you’re not in the mood. You’ve emerged from winter barely nurtured yourself. It’s all lost on you.

I get torn between hanging out in spring’s predictable and reliable good mood or staying in, cocooning with the TV, which works hard to pull us in and keep us there. Yet outside there’s always something good on, something to watch, reliable, queued up, ready, but you can’t stream it, tape it or rewind it, and there are no reruns. It’s active. It’s live. It’s now.

Once spring really takes hold, summer’s heat shows up, which I tend to dread, but without it you wouldn’t get those spring and fall perfect weather bookends. Or linger in the long late days it brings and in swimming pools or air conditioning. Spring is activity. Birds singing, mating, nesting. Weeds are at it too, moving forward, growing their best. Everything outside it seems is vying for a spot in the sun. Aren’t we all? Cut back a shrub and it’ll usually grow back fuller, so it can bloom again. When we’re cut down or diminished, we also have a chance to come back better than before. Spring forward. xo

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Empty nester, Family, Midlife, Parenting, Self reliance

Leaving the Nest

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Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

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Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

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Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?