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Sometime last fall, in the space between knowing my life would change and that change beginning, I started to read Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Ouiser’s recommendations never steer me wrong. You can trust them as well. I savored this collection of essays. Reading for a few days in a row before turning to another book as the mood struck me, but always returning to dip back into the space and sound of the writing. Abdurraqib writes about a wide variety of music, by weaving his story into the experience of listing or attending a concert. He uses those stories to reveal the contemporary moment in a way that made me pay closer attention to the music filling my world. Everyone should buy the book, even if you only read “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America.”
There are so many tools that are made for my hands.
But the tide smashes all my best laid plans to sand.Neko Case – Night Still Comes
In the final pages of the book, Abdurraqib elegizes 2016. A year that many of us individually, and as a nation, struggled to survive. To think about what happened in the country in 2016, I have to carefully untangle each event – each death, each killing, each mass shooting – from the death of my marriage. For me, 2016 is an endless coordination, getting my ex-husband to help, alerting his family, talking with doctors, finding someone to care for the animals as I constantly drove from Bemidji to Fargo and back each Saturday from January – March, bringing him home, returning him to another hospital, and starting the cycle over. Navigating 2016 took every tool at my disposal, and, at every turn, each plan I made smashed against the reality that my marriage was over.
Abdurraqib’s elegy for 2016 takes a different approach. Describing his response to the horrific Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Abdurraqib recounts how the sounds of children riding their bikes reminds him that it is in the small moments of joy that we regain our strength to return to the fight.
And, as I think about 2016, I remember the phone calls. Long talks with friends and family full of tears and laughter. I remember the unexpected care packages. I remember the happy hours spent eating fried foods and deepening new friendships. I remember learning to accept the help offered. And, I realize how each of these moments renewed my strength. The cleansing tears shed with friends. The laughter at a macabe joke, because … what else can you do? The warmth brought by a smile and an invitation to lunch. The joy – large and small – made it possible for me to make it through the night I feared for my safety, for me to pick up the pieces as each plan failed, for me to know without a doubt when it was time to let go.
I do it for the joy it bringsAni DiFranco ~ Joyful Girl
‘Cause I’m a joyful girl
‘Cause the world owes me nothing
And we owe each other the world
Abdurraqib concludes, “Joy, in this way, can be a weapon–that which carries us forward when we have been beaten back for days, or moths, or years.” And I remember how beaten down I felt in the years leading up to 2016. How alone I felt trudging from one crisis to the next just trying desperately to hold it together, to make sure I could provide for my family. Yes, there were moments of joy in those years, friendships made, but I remember how my smile rarely reached my eyes, and my guard never fully came down. In 2016, joy became my weapon. It carried me forward each time an event beat me down. Joy also became the weapon of my recovery. It flooded my life in the fall of 2016: the house full of friends at the birthday party I threw for myself, the renewal of old friendships, the long mornings and afternoons on the deck, the comfort of the dogs and cat as we settled into our new normal. The joy in those moments, big and small, salving my wounds, healing me, and carrying me forward.
If you are at all familiar with the musical Carousel, please forgive me for putting that song in your head. If you aren’t the linked video is a special peak into musicals circa 1956. Watch it, if you can. Also, take comfort in the fact that, due to a bit part in our high school production of said show, it is going to take me at least a week to get it out of my own brain. In my last entry, I inadvertently set forth a challenge that the rest of June would have to work to live up to the first day. Apparently, the challenge was accepted in all the best ways!
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A consistent theme throughout my post-divorce writing is the joy, revelation, and tension between the past and the present. The granola post probably captures the idea, and the joy of it, most clearly. The tension and the revelation are, I think, more diffuse. In my experience, they sneak up on me; the moments of the most joy and revelation in the present made more so by their inevitable contrast to the past. Moving through this past weekend, chronicling it with pictures that deliberately avoid faces, recovering from the bouts of laughter that left me breathless, I planned a joyful, celebratory post about the impromptu first party in my home, about old friendships, about bringing together old and new friends. Perhaps this post is still that, there is still joy and celebration, but all of that now exists in the contrast.
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Next to the coffee pot on my kitchen counter sits a 1.5 gallon clear glass jug filled nearly to the top with the homemade granola I toasted yesterday. Every time I walk into the kitchen it makes me happy. A stupid thing really, that this jar of toasted oats and nuts fills me with joy, but these days I take joy where I can get it. None of my divorced friends warned me about this, how this second holiday season would be so much worse than the first. Maybe the second year blues aren’t a thing for everyone, but it has been a nightmare for me. Last year, everything was new and perhaps I’d steeled myself for a malaise that never materialized. As a result, this year I was unprepared for the unpredictable emotional roller coaster of loss, nostalgia, and joy I’ve ridden since mid-November.
Last fall once I decided to ask for the divorce, the universe pretty much heaved a huge sigh of relief and lay every sign and portent that this was the right decision at my feet, with ribbons attached. There have been struggles along the way, but without hesitation I can say that I am happier and did the right thing. Coming home each day to the animals and this house I rent in a town that I love, it balances pressures of this life: living alone, being responsible for everything. Yet, even as I embrace and relish my independence a part of me longs for a partner to share some of the burden. Reconciling what I had with what I want, who I was with who I am feels impossible. The joy and the longing so often go hand in hand and come from such unexpected directions.
Since about 1999, I’ve wanted to make my own granola. What I remember from that summer in Homer, is asking my Alaskan friend how she made her granola. Her answer was straight forward enough that neither she, nor I even tried to write it down. My life since that summer has been interesting, but definitely not straight forward. Periodically, I’ve thought about making my own granola, but there was always a reason not to, and over the years I forgot what my friend told me. Yes, I know there is an internet for these things. Most of my recipes are found that way; however, whenever I looked up a granola recipe it was this PROCESS that involved a million steps and ridiculous ingredients, nothing like what had been described to me. A part of me also just wanted my friend’s recipe, one I equated with good times, laughter, and my Pacific Northwest home. People everywhere make their own granola, but having grown up in Washington it feels like a quintessentially North-westerner thing to do. Doing something that so vividly represented my Northwest roots probably fueled my desire to give granola making a try.
This fall when a new friend revealed that they were from Oregon AND that their mom still made and sent them granola, I pretty much begged for the recipe.
“No way, too soon! It’s a family recipe. We’re barely friends, yet.” I was told.
“Okay. How long do we have to be friends before I am family?” I asked.
“Well, in my life, generally after 5 – 10 years one or the other of us has been through something major. We’ve been there for each other and become like family; or, we weren’t there for each other and have grown apart.” I explained.
Later, I joked. “I need a time-line. How long before I get the granola recipe?” It was about then they gave me a small container of the granola, and a printed copy of the recipe for Christmas. That friend doesn’t realize what a gift this actually was. I know, because frankly, I didn’t know what a gift it was. I was just excited to have a granola recipe much more quickly than I expected. Yesterday, I did my grocery shopping picked up all the ingredients I needed, and the container to keep it in, came home and began the assembly process. In no time at all, I had two sheets of granola toasting in the oven, while I went to work on my other, greater than I realized, gift of the year.
Moving back to North Carolina from Minnesota is one of this year’s events filled with struggles and joy. Getting rid of nearly everything I owned counts as a joy, because I entered this new life relatively free of the old one. Trying to replace everything counts as a struggle because it takes time, and in that time you still need things, like a desk or a kitchen table. My friends, who always see me through the struggles, helped with this one as well. A dear friend in Raleigh loaned me a desk and kitchen table, and every time I visit sends me home with something else they planned to donate. After the incident with my Christmas sock, when they offered this tree and a couple of sets of lights, I wasn’t sure.
As a single woman, struggling to get through this season, the last thing I thought I should do was buy decorations and put up a tree. I accepted it though, and then I bought the decorations. With the smell of granola toasting in the background, I put together the tree, strung the lights, and hung the decorations. Yes, I almost cried several times. They weren’t the tears of loss or longing I expected, though. In those long, hard years while my marriage crumbled, I’d forgotten the simple joy of putting up a tree, of hanging memories on the branches. Christmas music playing in the back ground, I nearly cried because I realized I missed decorating the tree. In a moment antithetical to everything in my Gen X heart, like the heroine of a Hallmark movie, I didn’t just miss decorating the tree as something I used to do; I knew it had to be a part of who I was now.
Finding my joy, the big and small moments of it, has been the true blessing of my divorce. Remembering the ease with which I could smile, laugh, and love, I found myself again during this last year. I learned to understand what I truly crave and what I don’t need, to know my strength and to accept my weaknesses. Looking in the mirror each morning, I am amazed at how much I can love myself and, at the same time, be so curious about what I have yet to learn and who I will become. The mirror reflects back to me who I am now, and I am re-shaping the woman so deeply scarred by my marriage.
Christmas trees, even artificial ones, can only stay up so long, and a single woman can only eat so much granola. For now though, this first batch, is about something bigger. It is about the way the smell drifted through the house as I hung decorations. This recipe comes from home, or close enough, and it is a connection between who I was and who I am becoming. The full jar on the counter is a visual and visceral representation of my Pacific Northwest roots. It brings to mind cabins in the woods, shelves full of mason jars of granola, herbs, and preserves, and living in time with the tides while being embraced by the mountains. It reminds me that I was a girl who explored, who risked, and who could rely on herself, even if it was just to make her own breakfast.
Yes, this holiday season has been hard. It has ripped me bare and it isn’t even New Year’s yet. Perhaps, by the time you read this, I will have made it through. Divorce is hard. Making a new life is hard. The holidays are hard for as many reasons as there are individuals. I wish I had answers for myself, or for you, but there is no magic. I just keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, stacking up one morning after the next. Some days, though, some days I get to sit in the glow of light from a Christmas tree and see the jar of granola on my counter, and these things make me smile. Once, as I lamented moving back to North Carolina not Washington where I could be closer to family, my little sister said, “At least in North Carolina you will be close to your friends-family.” She was right. Throughout this year my North Carolina friends-family carried me listening to me, helping me move, carrying on epic text conversations, getting me out of the house, and talking me off all my ledges. Only time will tell if my new friend becomes a part of that friends-family, but the granola that brings my Washington home into my North Carolina life is here to stay.