My neighbors have balloons and a banner over their door today. The banner reads: “Always Under the Same Stars, Now Under the Same Roof. Welcome Home!” Although I don’t know my neighbors, I do know that we live in a military town; it’s probably safe to assume they have a soldier coming home today. I saw the sign leaving the house this morning and it struck a nerve somewhere deep inside me. The writer in me was drawn to the lyrical wording, the creative spirit inside was drawn to the bright colors used on the banner, the sentimental Tiffini had her heart warmed by the idea of loved ones reuniting, of a safe return.
Hours after seeing the festive decorations, though, what’s still ringing in my ears are the words, “Always Under the Same Stars…” I’m sure it’s a line from a book or movie somewhere, I’ve heard it before. There’s even a legend of two lovers that states the same idea. But it’s made me see the strangers I’ve passed this morning in a slightly different light. For instance, earlier today, driving down I-24, the truck in front of me slammed into the car in front of him, knocking the car off the side of the road into a grassy ditch. Swerving to the right (thank God there was no one in the right hand lane; if there had been, it would have been me involved in a wreck) was the only way to avoid hitting the truck, making a bad wreck worse. Long minutes after passing the wreck, though, I found myself thinking of the banner back at my neighbor’s and then of the people involved in the crash. Thankful they both appeared to be unharmed, thinking about how their morning was going. While I sped along the interstate, they were talking about who was at fault, waiting for the police, making sure neither was injured. They were under the same skies I was. Although the weights crowding my mind seem to be of critical importance because they affect my family, those strangers involved in the crash are under the same skies: they are living too. This morning’s crash mattered to them. I couldn’t help but wonder: what are they going to be late for? What domino effect will the delay create in their day, their lives? While I drive to Nashville, and the strangers deal with the wreck, my neighbors may simultaneously be at the airport, waiting to greet their loved one, holding up handmade signs that same “Welcome Home,” their eyes anxiously scanning the sea of people for the only one in camouflage they recognize. Today matters to them too. Will the service man or woman be the same after returning home? Will h/she suffer from insomnia or nightmares that h/she won’t be able to talk about? Or will the return to civilian life make h/her blossom, remind h/her why h/she went away in the first place?
When I was in high school, people called me Blossom. Mainly because I constantly wore a black hat that had a flower on it (it was an awesome hat). In the last several years, though, the moniker has seemed to fit me more than it did back then. In high school, I was hyper focused on pleasing the adults in my life, getting good grades, writing longer and longer books and just getting through the day. When I went outside, I knew the sky was blue and the grass green, but I really didn’t see the colors. When I passed strangers on the street, I suppose I knew they were walking past me, but I didn’t really see them. I was too busy walking an imaginary tightrope to notice the world or the people around me, too frightened that one wrong step could lead me to catastrophe, too withdrawn to notice the extravagance of the world, too self-contained to see the abundance of beauty around me that could have really helped me “blossom.”
I’ve always struggled with feeling alienated from my peers. In school, I remember telling my mother that I did not understand other girls, that they seemed to be wasting their time, that the things they wanted to talk about were irrelevant, frivolous. Boys avoided me like the plague. In retrospect, this was probably because they had no idea what to say to the bookworm who made straight As but was never seen outside of class. At the time, though, it made me feel inferior to the other girls. I’m not sure when, exactly, but at some point in middle school, I decided that I would rather my classmates think I was unattainable than realize I wasn’t alone by choice. To that extent, I made sure I always appeared busy: I would write when there wasn’t a teacher talking. As soon as the bell rang, I was out the door and I didn’t meander about: I went straight to my next class. I did not have a locker, choosing instead of to carry my five thousand pounds books in a backpack all day rather than risk being late to class. I sat in the front row in every class except Math and that was only because Math made me cry on a regular basis; being called out by a teacher to answer a question in that class would have traumatized me. Hiding was the best way to avoid that. My point is: I didn’t even attempt to socialize. Instead, I lived inside a bubble that was designed to protect me. The bubble might have gotten a tad bit lonely sometimes but it was better to be lonely than to be rejected or abandoned.
It wasn’t until I had my daughters that the world changed. Suddenly, the trees were greener and I actually stopped to notice the feel of the grass on my toes. I deliberately splashed in puddles, breaking all kind of previously self-imposed rules about being demure, because I wanted to teach them to be free. As the years continued to pass, my peripheral vision improved: suddenly, the world became so much bigger than my world alone. Instead of being frightened by this, it gave me comfort in much the same way as learning about the Holocaust had as a teenager. The walls made of thick concrete around my heart began to soften their edges and that gave me space to notice the people around me. At first, everyone was better than I. Better mothers, prettier with much more style, better friends, wives, etc. At first, I couldn’t compare. Inferiority scared me…. but instead of hiding from it as I had done as a teenager, I had a reason now to conquer it instead. I bowed my head and plowed forward, scheduling playdates for the girls even when the other mothers intended to hang out with us. I stopped to chat with the women at church, even though doing so set my heart to shaking. I wanted to teach my daughters not to isolate themselves, even if that meant coming out of my hidden cave.
My oldest one is twelve now and I still go through an internal battle every time an opportunity arises to join in with a group of other women. I’ve never been on a “girls night out.” In twelve years, I’ve agreed to only one lunch with one mom. My instinct is still to retreat. But I’m much better at recognizing it for what it is and overcoming it, if only to model for my daughters. But, little by little, I’ve “blossomed” into someone who is able to see that her world isn’t the only one that exists. When things get really hard, when the days feels like one long, dark night, when the blocks fall in sets of fives instead of threes, instead of gritting my teeth and waiting for the storms to pass, I look around me now and take note of the sign on the neighbor’s door, or the effect of a crash on two strangers’ day. Then I consciously play in the rain, see gorillas with arms raised for a hug in the clouds, enjoy simple Chatter Chats with my girls and remember that, while I’m doing all of this, the people next door and across the street, they are having aha moments, catastrophes and triumphs the very same minute.
In the U.S. alone, there are approximately 10,829 babies born every day. Also, there are approximately 6,775 deaths per day in the United States alone. Whether I’m experiencing joy or sadness, there is someone in my own country experiencing the same emotion. Being aware of that helps me stay calm and focused and helps me remember that, after every storm, a rainbow appears. When I feel like I’m not doing enough, I have to stop and breathe, take a minute and remember: life is not a race. It is important to me to create special memories for my girls, memories of us spending time playing together or going places and making the most of every moment. I scour the calendars of our local and surrounding cities, drive more than a truck driver and actively ensure they have opportunities to live. It’s not that I want them to be happy all the time, as I understand that’s neither possible nor even preferable, really (struggle can breed persistence and persistence can breed courage which can then breed character). Rather, I want them to have a scrapbook of memories, a treasure trove they can pull out at a moment’s notice that will tell them that their mother made time, created time, exclusively for them. That being said, sometimes I remind myself that savoring the small moments, the moments when we don’t leave the house but instead spend the time curled up in my bed reading or chatting, when we stay home and bake homemade bread or camp out in the living room for a movie marathon… those moments are teaching them to enjoy the simple things of life. And it’s when we keep life simple that we are able to see beauty in the mundane, able to experience true joy over the ordinary: peaches growing in our yard, grapes ready for picking in the garden, the promise of watermelons to harvest soon in the garden. Chasing the family of rabbits out of our garden, grocery shopping and letting them scan and pay for every item in the cart themselves, singing along to their favorite records. There is beauty, and there is hope, in the simple moments.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve learned many lessons. I’ve learned the beauty of simplicity, I’ve learned how bright and beautiful nature is, I’ve learned to pay attention to the people, and the strangers, around me… I’ve even learned higher level math! One of the most meaningful, though, is that, even when it feels like we are, we are never really alone. To feel a true sense of community and friendship, I have to allow myself to be vulnerable, believing that the reward of acceptance and community and friendship is worth the risk. When I offer grace to myself, I stop looking for the imperfections that I know I have and am able to see the people around me as equal instead of superior. What I want my daughters to see is that they aren’t superior to anyone, but neither are others superior to them. Regardless of any differences that might exist between me and my neighbors, or me and the strangers involved in the crash, the ties that unite us are stronger. We are all struggling to carve the best life we can: my vision for that and theirs may differ but, ultimately, we’re both still just trying to lead peaceful, happy lives by putting one step in front of the other, praying for more rainbows than storms. Always under the same skies… the sky is a blanket and it covers us all, no matter where we’re at, and humans are connected by emotion.
The beauty of the world around us is that there is so much to enjoy and be thankful for. Big things like our families, shelter, food on the table… but little things, too: flowers and caterpillars and shade. To see them, I just have to burst the bubble, learn to walk with my eyes open and actively seek out things, and people, upon which I can draw comfort and hope when the sunny skies turn gray. When the world gets to be too much and my heart feels panicked or my mind is overwhelmed, when exhaustion or illness rules my waking thoughts, when there’s more on the to-do list than there are hours in the day, when the bills are stacked to the ceiling and the paycheck is a week away, pausing to pray for the strangers in the car wreck or to say “welcome home” to the neighbors, pausing to watch the rabbits run in the backyard or to color with my daughters, pausing to focus on what is around me instead of the fears offers me a chance to catch my breath and find my footing. And when all is going right in my world, when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the girls are happy, and the mountain’s summit is at hand, pausing to enjoy the shade, pick a flower, make cards for senior citizens, or send an e-mail to an old friend adds color and joy and purpose which, in turn, provide treasured memories and hope for when those skies darken.
In our yard, we have peach trees, grapes and watermelons growing. The girls get very excited when something successfully grows; when the grapes were ready for harvesting, they squealed. When the peaches were ripe, I squealed. We eagerly look forward to tasting garden fresh watermelons soon. As exciting as the garden is, and as rewarding, it is also hard work. In order to blossom, in order to grow, the plants need the right nutrients: we had to till and fertilize the soil, we have to remember to water it (except this Summer, where the main concern is that the rain is drowning my plants), we have to protect it from the rabbits, we have to tend the weeds that try to choke it. And, mostly, our fruits need time. Time to strengthen their roots, time to sprout and time to ripen. In this crazy life, it’s easy for me to feel a non-existent need to rush, to spend every waking moment doing something and, if I’m not doing something, then I feel like I’m wasting time. The truth, though, is that sometimes what we need the most is to stop so that we can take the time we need to find shelter from the rain or enjoy the sunshine. Just like my plants in the garden, what I crave the most is the opportunity to feel connected and hopeful and I’ve found that the key to finding those elusive elements of peace is in finding the beauty in the world I’m in, caring about the people I see, be they stranger or family, and by cultivating a sense of wonder.
Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us