I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
A very dear friend asked how I liked my new place.
“It’s like I’m on vacation,” I wrote back. “But underneath it all seems wrong. I’m a little afraid. It’s like the vacation will end soon, and I have no home to return to.”
“Give it time,” he messaged back. “I’ve come to believe home is now.”
Home is now? What the hell does that mean? I bristled, feeling tender and somewhat dismissed by his words. But I’ve learned a thing or two. Some tricks. I breathed in love and breathed out fear. I thought how the words would sound in my ears, if he were right here: I felt a wave of kindness, and relaxed into the warmth of it. Nope. They still stung a little, those words, stung deep in my heart. And yet, they stayed with me for weeks, like a burr stuck to my pant leg.
Home is now. I couldn’t shake the phrase. Home is now. I gave it time. The words stopped stinging.
Home is such a loaded word for me, laced with longing and fed by a raging torrent of old griefs bottled up inside. Home is explosive, a trigger word, and my friend knew that about me. Home reminds me of the gaping hole in my heart that is exposed when I try to relax sometimes but cannot. It’s the empty place inside, the void I’ve talked through with therapists and moved through with yoga teachers and breathed through in meditation. Home reminds me of the mortar that’s missing in my foundation, that I’ve tried to tuckpoint by reading book after book about healing and trauma, tried to drown with another glass of wine.
Home is the word one yoga teacher liked to use in final relaxation, saying in a sweet calm voice to settle in and find a memory of a time you felt safe and home—relax there, she said. But I had to pretend-relax, because a flooding of panic started up, gushing unexpectedly, like it does. I am (usually) good at pretending to be calm, I learned very early and practiced often.
And as my heart raced in the dim light of the studio, I heard a chorus of old voices, judging voices. “The only thing wrong is YOU,” the voices insist. “You’re being dramatic. It’s all your imagination.”
The flooding inevitably washes drowning girl out into the open, and plain old a-little-lost-anxiety rises up into a nightly tide of bad dreams. She won’t let me sleep, waking me insistently with her thrashing, screaming like a gull in a squall.
In the dim five o’clock light I thought of my friend’s words, of non-judgment, of kindness—I thought of all my friends, how they hold me when I most need holding. Selfishly, I tired of drowning girl’s relentless need of me. I felt fearful everyone else would tire of me, as I tired of her. I was plain tired that night, honestly.
But I have my tricks now, I do. I breathed in love and breathed out fear and I threw her the first line that came. “Home is now,” I told her, in that same tone my mother would use when she’d hand me a cherry dum-dum pop and tell me to hush up. “Home is now,” I repeated, softer, and felt her relax a little, felt her heart, my heart, our heart, slow to a steady rhythm. The birds outside sang and we fell sleep for an hour.
“Home is now,” I recited later, as I walked my new neighborhood feeling drizzle on my skin.
“Home is now,” I repeated the next day, while passing my new coffee shop, my new library, my new favorite pizza place with that amazing kale salad. I repeated it while I did yoga, and while I washed the dishes. Sometimes during the repeating of this new mantra, drowning girl would break through, protesting, thrashing. “Yes, I hear you. Home is now,” I said.
I said it again as I entered the cool green tunnel of the woods near my house last night. The woods always lull her into calm. She watches for the deer to come, and this dusky evening they appeared like ghosts from the past, here one moment, gone the next, a pair of slender yearlings, big-eyed and watchful. Drowning girl watched them watching us, her eyes wide the way only a seven-year-old’s can be.
Later, scrolling through the news, I felt her paddling around about uncertainties and realities—about health care, about the environment, about hate, about people getting sick, losing people you love—about dying. Hard things happen, every damn day. Good things happen, too. I try to make her see the good things as well. Everyday I walk with her, show her the rusting buildings that look like castles against the blue sky and weeds finding places to grow in the middle of a parking lot. I stop to smell lavender and lemon balm, to smile at babies in strollers. I try to prove her how beautiful it all is, this home, this now.
She’s stubborn, drowning girl is. She swims in sucking pull of the past, looking for home. When? she asks me, over and over. When will we be able to relax? When will we be home? I take her to yoga, to meetings. I take her everywhere now. I left her alone too long.
She wears me out with her questioning, the way any anxious seven-year-old would. But she’s stuck with me, and I with her. Slowly and with the help of practices and friends—my wise and warm amazing friends—I am learning to look at her with love, learning to tell her, kindly but oh-so firmly, that I understand when she is afraid. That it is okay. That I will not let her go through this life alone. I tell her I will always stay here with her, that she isn’t alone in the darkness of the past. No one will hurt her now that I’m here.
She’s home. And home is now, and now is—everything.
I’ll just keep saying it, until she believes it too.
It’s your birthday, Mama. In the picture you’re about 12 or 13, but you did headstands for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, I lived in fear of your doing one when a friend was over. The other mothers didn’t do things like that.
I’m beginning at last to see you more fully, twenty-five years after your last earthly birthday. A truer picture emerges as I learn more about life, about myself—maybe it’s you coming clear or maybe it’s me? But the veils are falling away.
For a long time, I kept my memories of you behind those veils, blurring the edges and obscuring the painfully sharp details. The veils were garnet-colored, the blood-red of your birthstone. Looking at you through them softened the memories of you, made them pink and pretty as a sunset, and as distant.
The summer I was eighteen your anchoring roles were torn away. Your last baby (me) off to college. And then: Dad died. I still remember the grief, suffocating and thick as the August air. Suffocating because we were locked into pretending to be strong and calm, you and I.
At exactly the age I am today, you became a widow. And all these years later, I am a divorced woman. Funny how both of us emerged from long marriages, newly single at the same age. I feel a new kind of kinship with you. I guess our relationship isn’t over, is it? It’s true what they say: the people you love live on in your heart.
As I find myself, I unearth pieces of you, and you continually surprise me, Mama. You are not all fierce hugs and pots of vegetable soup, not just chewy raisin-oatmeal cookies and games of cribbage and piles of books and papers everywhere, though I see you in my mail stacks and my habit of saving the tiniest bits of leftovers.
I also find your “hot-spit” spirit in the shards of my anger, I find your ancient wounds, and mine, in my middle-of-the-night panics. I hear your voice sometimes in my dreams, and in shrill of my own voice, when I lose patience and boil over. Oh, I am fine, Mama. More than fine. Like you, I’m resilient and now: I don’t have to pretend to be ever-strong and ever-calm. I can just be me, roiling emotions and all.
The last gifts you gave me are the ones I’ve spent the last couple years opening. Remember that night in the kitchen after your chemotherapy, in the window of time before you grew queasy, how you and I sat and you told me some things that maybe you never told anyone else, because I needed to know them? Or maybe you told others, it doesn’t matter. You gave me what I needed to figure myself out. I didn’t quite know what to do with most of what you shared; I was embarrassed by your shame at your human failings. My own baby was stirring in my belly, and somehow I thought it best to push difficult things aside. Pretend it was all okay. I was afraid, you see.
I told you not to worry about the things you’d shared, things that were hard for you to say. Personal things, confessions of your weaknesses. I dismissed them all away with a rushed out thank- you-for-telling-me. I put those precious words, the evidence of your humanness, your stumbles and triumphs that were just you and not my mother, into the bottom of my very deepest brain-drawer when you died. And I pretended I was ever-strong, ever-calm. I was carefully incurious.
Silly, blind me. You meant to give me a shortcut, didn’t you? You were trying to let me know: it’s okay to be human, that falling apart—happens sometimes. That the key is trusting, and sharing, and connecting. Getting up, and forgiving yourself for falling.
And all of that starts with not pretending to be strong or calm when you are not. It means not pretending at all. It was like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy realizes she’s had the power to go home all along. Pretending to be what we are not, to deny who we are, drives us into very lonely territory.
This year, I finally learned how to do a headstand. Like mother, like daughter.
I’m so glad, Mama, that you are still here, in my heart, while I figure things out.
Home is where you are safe. Home is the warm place.
Home is where you do not feel afraid.
(Maybe home can be anywhere?)
Maybe home is the feeling of your baby falling asleep heavy in your arms,
or the feeling implanted into your consciousness
when you hiccuped in your mother’s womb, and she laughed
and then started talking to you, words a rumble of unintelligible love filtered through amniotic fluid.
The world is an overwhelming place. Bad things happen. Evil things.
(Maybe home is nowhere? There are many without a home. Maybe there is no home?)
No. Home exists. I’ve felt it.
Home is where love happens, any place you can unclench your jaw, relax, be unguarded.
Home is a friend cooking beans, home is a cup of lemon tea, a hug.
A place to seek hope, a place to dream, a place to find courage, a place to build strength.
Home is the rustle of wind in the drying, dying leaves during a silent walk.
Home is in the wide-open smile of the guy at the car wash
and the have-a-good-one from the tired cashier at Kroger.
Home is the smell of sweet potatoes roasting in a hot oven.
Home is having an oven, and a sweet potato, and a knife.
(Maybe home is a story we tell ourselves, so we don’t give up?)
Because the world is an overwhelming place, and bad things happen.
Every single day, somewhere. Bad.
Every single minute. Evil.
Things beyond fixing.
Things you cannot fix.
Things you have to try to help fix, anyway. Somehow.
(In the right sort of home, courage is born, change is born, hope is born?)
I want to find a home like that. Make one. Somehow.
Maybe home comes and goes, waxes and wanes
like the sliver of moon shining over the parking lot
brighter than anything else in the vast sky above?
Loading groceries into my car, I suddenly remember how it felt to be pregnant.
I was a home, then, walking.
We all begin in such a home.
Maybe home is where hope hiccups, somewhere deep within,
waiting for us to laugh again?