may it not, therefore, dry up and blow away

I am home now, in a quiet house where my boys are resting. They are sick today: fitful sleeping and too-fast fever breathing. I’m staying near to their warm bodies. We have candles lit for their healing; we have prayed. We will read today, and touch, and wait for health to come. This stillness is a gift. There is coffee and the house is clean.

In the last couple of weeks, we watched our girl-cat die. We spent days and nights with her as her body shut down. The boys held bowls of water to her mouth once she could no longer get up to drink. They laid a favorite blanket on the floor for her once she could no longer stay safely in the bed when, for brief stretches, we had to leave. They whispered into her fur and kissed her head and diminishing body. She slept so close to them until the very end. Nearness to us was her final comfort, and we gave it. I hope they remember this: the love they offered and accepted, how unafraid they were to face the truth of her leaving. I hope they carry it into the losses they will go on to meet.

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She died stretched out next to me, taking up more space in death than she ever had in life. J came over in the night to help me move her body into a box and prepare it for the boys to see. I was overwhelmed; coming was a kindness. Later my friend Matt helped me dig a hole three feet deep, stopping to cut thick tree roots and unearth rocks. Matt is no stranger to grave-digging – deeper graves, and for much heavier reasons – having offered what he could in the face of injustice, preparing space for death row inmates who would be lowered into Georgia red clay. This was not that. Not state-sanctioned evil. Not Georgia heat. Just a beloved nineteen-year-old cat who died in my bed. A small three-foot grave and two boys watching.

And then, of course, we taught my sons how to lower a body they love into the ground.

I already understood myself to have made promises to this house. It is a century old. I am its fifth owner. We belong to one another. But digging so deeply into the earth has changed my relationship to the land. Surrendering beloved flesh to it. Using sharp shovels to tear it apart. Small-boy-handfuls of dirt to put it back together again. The land is changed. My sons are changed. I am changed. It took thirty-eight years of living to lay down such roots. It took grief and the fragmentation of loss.

I am made weary by the events of this year. I am still stunned by all that has taken place. But I am sturdier than I knew. I think a lot now about women of the past. My mothers as far back as they go. All our mothers as far back. Brave. Resilient. I feel myself lengthen into their untold stories.

These words by Kathleen Norris have stayed with me.

The Plains are not forgiving. Anything that is shallow – the easy optimism of a homesteader; the false hope that denies geography, climate, history; the tree whose roots don’t reach ground water – will dry up and blow away.

I feel I was given a legacy of hope. That it was passed down in both blood and stories, despite or perhaps because of all the reasons that wouldn’t be true. And I’m thinking these days about the responsibility of passing down hope: of offering it while taking care that it isn’t shallow or light. I watched as these boys met with this close, intimate death. Watched their hands cradle her stiff body without fear. They kissed her goodbye again and again. They never looked away. They know she’s in the ground; they put her there. In that way, they have roots now too. This moment denied nothing that is. This moment was not shallow. May it not, therefore, dry up and blow away.

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A tiny epilogue: Days later, we dug once more to build a fire pit deep into this small bit of land. We used bricks that came from the house J and I brought these boys home to, our first home. Then my mom and cousin Linzie lovingly painted this mural on part of our fence: an offering, a gorgeous and powerful gift. Death and community and beauty and hope. Deep roots and blue poppies. Resilient mothers as far back as they go.

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on desert wisdom (or surrendering to reduced circumstances)

There’s a thing people say a lot now. It is well intentioned and kind, an attempt at reassurance. It goes something like: “at least you can get more rest now, though. So that when you’re with them, you will have even more to give.”

I am sure people feel this way. I know people who feel this way. It is truly reasonable.

But for me it doesn’t work that way. I don’t feel rested when I’ve been away; I feel unsettled. Our routines are disrupted. I need to feel their bodies again, to hold them and come back into us. To smell them, though some of their smells are different. It takes work to fall back into the rhythm that is our family this way, and work then, again, to force myself out of it. All that work more than absorbs the extra hour or two of sleep I get those nights.

Another thing I wish I could find comfort in is moving on. J has. Since the beginning. The boys are spending more and more time with J’s partner now. All those intimacies. It is startling and gut-wrenching, and that fact is irrelevant, and damn if that doesn’t have some lessons about life. Anyway, I want that too. I miss being a family of four, that energy. The recognition between parents of some angel-sweet moment, or of a rising frustration. The day trips and shared splurges and compensations we make for one another. The being in love and in parenthood all at once. To just move on. To refuse to be robbed by this of the third child I still long for. To fill the space when they’re away with dates and parties and courtship. But my efforts even to start down that road have produced panic. Rising anxiety. There’s no space here. This isn’t about resting more, being restored, settling into new love. None of that simple stuff offers comfort.

But the other day, I was reading on my porch: Kathleen Norris’s Dakota. And I found these words and suddenly the first glimmer of freedom-in-this was born. She was writing about living in the plains, about space and absence and chosen loneliness. And she said,

I had stumbled upon a basic truth of asceticism: that it is not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person…. A healthy ascetic discipline asks you to rejoice in these gifts of deprivation, to learn from them, and to care less for amenities than for that which refreshes from a deeper source. Desert wisdom allows you to be at home, wherever you are.

And this possible freedom sprung up. This deprivation, these reduced circumstances. They have been harder to stomach because unlike a monk I did not choose them, and yet. And yet here they are.

It is easy for me to give thanks for blessings. And easy, even, to be grateful for hardship. This thanks-for-deprivation possibility is new, and I feel ready to bump up against its edges and see what it yields. It is nice even to feel strong enough for the curiosity to arise.

So here I am. With the divorce finalized and my girl-cat of half my life dying. With the boys growing and thriving in two homes. With my mom and friends and family who love me like mad. With this sometimes-too-quiet house and its simple good bones. With me.

With me.

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