being present

Not Perfect, Just Right

hello there friend

I’m walking quickly, listening to an audiobook that’s the fourth in an embarrassingly cheesy young adult series, when my eye catches and stops briefly on a grill perched at the end of someone’s driveway. There’s a sign slapped on it with messy handwriting that reads: “not perfect.” I keep walking, but my mind is completely fixed on “not perfect,” like a heel caught faltering in grass at an outdoor wedding.

Not perfect. Not perfect.

It sings in me; it buzzes somewhere in me that’s been craving this message of comfortable acceptance. How unusual, but how wonderful, if it really does say “not perfect.” I turn around, walk back, and try to fix on the letters. I need to know if that’s what it actually says, but it turns out there’s something else next to the “not” and the bottom word is particularly illegible. I squint for a while, wait for the cars driving past to clear, and cross the street.

Once there, I see the sign actually reads: “not lighting properly.” I imagine that its owner with the sloppy script hopes that there’s a person out there who will be able to easily figure out the problem and, once fixed, get to enjoy the fruits (hot dogs?) of their roadside find. It’s not perfect, but maybe it’s just right for someone.

About a month ago, I was listening to a podcast that suggested imagining that you were moving and could start your life over in any way that you’d like. Imagine your ideal life, whatever that might look like, they said.

I snorted, most likely in my head (but maybe not), and began thinking of my fantasy apartment on the Seine in Paris and my dream cottage in the English countryside. I’d dress like a casual Kate Middleton and, heck, look like her, too. I’d wake up in the mornings and, alongside my husband, have a cup of tea and read. We’d take the time to think about our food, rather than texting each other in the evening, “Tacos, again?” and forgetting altogether about vegetables. My inner monologue slowed.

Maybe there was no need for the snarky tone to my thoughts. Parisian Kate Middleton aside, those last things were, in fact, very doable. The idea of making this perfect life attainable was one that I began to mull over seriously.

My weekday mornings used to look like this: Lie in bed until my husband was done shaving, get up, get dressed, go downstairs. I’d make my toast, distributing my peanut butter evenly across the top, and plunk down on our couch in front of the TV to watch the news. Then I’d brush my teeth, get into the car, and be on my way. It wasn’t something I had even thought about. I just did it.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. We tend to imagine that we will be a different person once we’ve reached a certain point in our lives. When I don’t work so many hours, I’ll exercise.When I have kids, I’ll make the time to slow down and be in the moment. When my kids are older, I’ll do things for me and pursue that passion that’s always been hovering in the back of my mind. Often, those milestones roll past, and those ideal selves don’t ever magically appear. We have to actually do something to make them real.

I decided to do just that something, starting with my mornings. I still generally have my piece of toast evenly spread with peanut butter. Some days I have tea, but mostly I don’t remember in time and instead have my usual water. Some days I read a book, but often I’ll flip through a magazine or even a catalogue, letting my brain slowly settle into the day. Some days my husband and I chat; others we’re quiet. It’s not much, but, honestly, these new, more purposeful mornings feel like freedom – the freedom to actively remember that I have a choice in how I live my days, and that I can make that choice now.

It’s getting darker these days, so we don’t have the beautiful light of our weekend mornings. The birds usually haven’t yet begun their songs and chatter, but there is still a sense of peace that fills me up, like a slow breath taken while watching leaves skate atop the rough sidewalk on a windy, late fall day.

My everyday mornings are by no means perfect, but, for me, they’re just right.

A week ago, I’m bundled up, out for a walk, and entangled in my thoughts, when I abruptly pause. I realize I’ve passed the driveway where the grill that wasn’t lighting properly once stood. The cold air is bitter and, despite my gloves, my fingers are already protesting. But I linger a moment. I soak in a little bit of happiness seeing that the grill is gone, that, I let myself believe, someone has chosen to make the small change to make it just right.

 

Words and image by Erin Smith.

All Things, All at Once

hello there, friend

When my husband and I planted that “For Sale” sign, we had no idea we would spend the next seven years waiting. We packed up knick knacks, freshened the paint, and kept our little yellow house as spotless as possible, certain that by this time next year, we would be building our forever home.

Four years later, after offers that fell through, months of hearing nothing at all, and years of making harder and harder decisions, we finally changed the sign to “Sold”. One last time, I washed dishes in our sink. Countless hours I had spent standing there, scouring glass after glass while watching my husband mow the backyard. Our actions said more about us than almost anything else: him, mowing back the grass each time it grew, predictable, unswerving, and me washing clean what would become dirty again, always planning for the next meal, the next step.

All things, all at once

It’s a song I listen to, often on repeat. The mood, the melody, the lyrics: they all remind me of the years of waiting. The years where I lived for the next day and the one after that, not the one I was in. I have spent years waiting for the next big thing to pass and for life to settle into normal.

In all of those years, I wished for so many things: to sell a house, to get that job, to have money enough for our dreams. But what I was really, really wishing for was to stop waiting. I wanted to stop all the doing, put aside the hustle, and to live in the moment.

The time we spent in an apartment between houses felt like an interlude — the “oooh’s” of a song between the verses, a long pause before pressing forward. My husband and I lived skeleton lives while we found ourselves waiting, again, for the next big thing. We hung photos to get them out of the way, not to make the place feel like home. I washed dishes in a sink that was too shallow, listening to neighbors marching above us.

We sat at our dining room table in that in-between apartment, scratching plans onto paper and erasing them again, sifting through possibilities. We were going to build our forever home. What size should this room be? If we move this here, where will that put the stairs? We spent many Friday nights with glasses of wine and a stack of design books nearby, inching ever closer to the future we had mapped out in our head, forgetting the present right in front of us.

It’s not one thing or the other
It’s all things all at once

Our lease was up and we couldn’t commit to another year, but needed a place to stay while we built that house we had planned out on paper. Friends of a friend, more generous than we could imagine, offered an apartment in one of their outbuildings. It had four walls, a bathroom, and not much else. But it would do for three months, maybe five. We could cram one marriage, two people, and three jobs into six hundred square feet, no problem. Another temporary stop on our journey to end the waiting.

One lengthy fight over a driveway permit later, we broke ground on our new house. We could see the end of our wait in the distance, but it was a distance measured in construction timelines that shifted almost daily. In the outbuilding, I washed dishes in a sink not meant for a kitchen, all the while repeating “this is temporary.” I was ready for the wait to be over.

It’s not one thing or the other
It’s all things all at once

August came, and with it two pink lines. Two very surprising pink lines. We lived in a shed that had no address and now we were expecting a baby. Our soon-to-be-house was raw, see-through walls that ended in sky, and I had a tiny person taking shape inside of me, growing day by day alongside that house.

There’s one inevitable truth to building a house: estimated completion dates are wholly and completely estimated. There’s one inevitable truth to having a baby: estimated due dates are wholly and completely estimated.

September, October, before the first snow — all of these were dates where we might have moved in, but didn’t. We waited for subcontractor estimates to come in, for materials to arrive, for paint to literally dry. That summer and fall were one collective inhale and pause, the part of yoga that hurts the most. The part I always cut short — but this time, I couldn’t.

In the studio, when you are facing your mat with hips in the air, pushing your heels down and adding length to your spine, you have permission to take a knee, to pull up and rest if your body needs it. In yoga, you listen to your body, to what it needs. When you are growing a baby and building a house, there is no time to listen.

And these wings aren’t for flying
These wings are just for show
It’s years since I’ve been flying
I’m down to the earth

A week before Christmas we moved into our new house, elated to be home after so many years of limbo. We unpacked our things and hung our photos with great care, content to dwell in this new normal while we waited for a baby to make us three. Our normal didn’t last long. The day that began my thirty-seventh week of pregnancy, rather than settle into the relief of a baby grown enough to deliver safely, I lost my job. It was out of the blue, and I was devastated. It’s not one thing or the other

It’s all things all at once

I wash baby bottles in a sink that looks toward our dining room table, the one where we once planned to build our home when it was just the two of us. That table now holds onesies and tiny socks, folded and ready to be worn and dirtied again. It’s the place where I do my work, an accidental freelance career filling naptimes.

I see the me that once sat at that table, so ready to be done waiting, so hesitant to have a baby and lose who she was and what she wanted. She was used to the waiting, constantly looking toward the next, unsure of what it meant to be settled — unsure if she’d be happy when she was. Now, I still sit at that table, no more sure of what it means to be settled, but a little more sure of what next looks like. Next is a bath for a smiling six-month old, another bedtime story, a sigh of relief when little eyes blink heavy and close into sleep. And next is also emails and invoices, stealing moments out of the day to set words down on paper.

As I sit at this table, I realize that I am both of these versions of myself at once. Part of me still waits for what is around the corner, for the day when life no longer revolves around naptimes, for when we trade out this table for a larger one to fit a growing family. The waiting never goes away, but more and more I learn that there’s magic to be found right here.

This table is where I work and write and take photos, just like I always have. And now, I mother here, too. It’s all things, all at once: past, present, and future.

 

Words by Abbigail Kriebs. Lyrics to All Things, All at Once by Tired Pony via Google Play.

And So, I Knit

hello there, friend

I back my car out of the garage and before I get farther, I realize I have forgotten something. I throw the car in park, look at my teenage daughter and mumble, “Be right back.” I dash inside quickly and grab a small bag.

Back in the car, Kate asks, “What did you forget?”

“My knitting,” I reply. She nods, knowingly. We drive on.

After we have arrived at the doctor’s office and have checked in at the counter, I unzip my bag and pull out a sock I am working. We sit down to wait our turn and she recounts her day to me. I knit around and around on tiny needles as she talks. I ask what she had for lunch (Caesar salad) and if she has homework (not too much). Soon her name is called and she stands up. I finish my round, grab my purse, and follow her. I keep the knitting out, knowing full well that this doctor often runs late and we will likely wait some more.

The first time I picked up needles and yarn was right before my twenty-first birthday. I spent the semester studying in England and was making my way through Europe, staying in hostels and traveling on a Euro-rail pass. One of my stops was in the south of France where my best friend from high school was living. When I arrived at her apartment, one of her roommates was knitting. I watched as she made rapid movements with her hands and mysteriously transformed the yarn into fabric. Seeing my interest, she stopped and looked up at me. “I can teach you,” she said.

When my visit ended a few days later, I shoved a pair of metal knitting needles and ball of navy blue wool into the side pocket of my already-stuffed backpack. During the remainder of my travels, I would pull out my knitting in the quiet, in between moments on the train and practice what I had learned. Every single stitch required my complete concentration and I gripped the needles tightly, determined to get it right.

That project was never completed. I made so many mistakes and dropped stitches without realizing it – it wasn’t salvageable. Still, I kept at it. Determined to learn to knit, I bought a new ball of yarn and a book that covered the basics. From the small black and white photos, I taught myself how to cast on and then how to knit and purl.

It’s been twenty-five years since I learned to knit. At the beginning, I knitted at home while watching TV or in the quiet of a weekend morning. I made sweaters and hats; some for myself, but most for gifts. When I became a mother, and my crafting time was limited to naps and evenings, I dropped the yarn and needles and pulled out the sewing machine more often than not.

I am a maker and have been for my entire life. I sew, I paint, I embroider, I bake, I cook and, of course, I knit. Keeping my hands busy creating is a daily affair. Taking raw materials and manipulating them into something entirely different and new, grounds me in a way that nothing else does. It’s my joy and my meditation, my unique brand of prayer.

When my oldest daughter, Jane, started first grade, Kate and I spent 20 minutes every afternoon in the carpool line. I tried to read as we sat parked in the school parking lot, but Kate was often too chatty for me to keep up with my book. How I wish I could say that I was content to sit there and just be, but I wasn’t. My crafting time was limited and precious and I did not want to waste an opportunity to do something. I started carrying yarn and needles with me, building hats from the bottom up as Kate regaled me with stories of her day. I knitted row after row ten minutes at a time, engaging with my child all the while.

These days, I have more time of my own to spend creating. When the house is empty, I can be found in my third floor studio, making quilts and other sewn items. As the mother of a teenage driver, I rarely spend time in the carpool line. Those pockets of down time that I filled with my needles clicking are fewer and farther between. Still, I find myself gravitating towards knitting more and more.

Earlier this year, I realized that I only have three more years with my girls at home. How can that be? Wasn’t it just yesterday that they were tiny people who needed so much of me? It seems inconceivable that I have a child entering college next fall. I do not want to miss a moment that remains. I want to be present, when they need me and even when they don’t. I’ve stopped squirreling myself away upstairs sewing. Instead, I sit at the kitchen table and I knit.

Friday afternoon, I hear the garage door go up. The girls come in, drop their book bags and purses, and get a snack. They pile onto the couch and I sit in my favorite chair, my knitting on my lap. I pick up the needles and get myself situated while Kate queues up the previous night’s Project Runway. We talk about the designers, the craziness of some of the fabrics, the dresses we like and those we don’t.

I feel the wool as it slips through my fingers and loops on and off the needles. My muscle memory is strong. My hands know just what to do. I no longer have to concentrate on each and every stitch. I don’t even have to look to know what I am doing. My sweater sleeve starts to take shape as the models walk the runway. The girls and I chat as we fast forward through the commercials. This is just where I want to be: in the thick of it, making all the while.

 

Words and photos by Erin Burke Harris.