My kids and I spent hours and hours of our holiday this year, doing jigsaw puzzles. It was their idea. I couldn’t really get them to do puzzles when they were little, but suddenly it’s “Mom, can we do a puzzle?” and I’m thrilled. No screens. No polite or forced let’s-make-this-moment-count conversations. Just hanging out, focused on putting something together…together. Laughs. Loose language. Thoughts that spilled out as words when we weren’t looking. I loved every minute of it. No “can you set the table” or “get dressed–the guests are coming in half an hour!” or “you need a haircut” or “hurry—we only have ten minutes to get to our gate.” Just blah-blah-blahing in a way we haven’t really blah-blah-blahed in a long time. And a lot of it was because I didn’t put the puzzle off on a side table in a side room. I put it front and center on the kitchen table. At meal time, we just threw down placemats and ate with the growing assemblage of little pieces below us. I felt those puzzle pieces’ hope for wholeness. And maybe mine too.
I loved puzzles as a child, knowing that there was a complete story that had been “whole” once and had deliberately been parsed into pieces for me to arrange and put back together. Maybe I was co-dependent that way, or a “fixer,” or just wanted to have faith that life had pieces that were part of a whole that made sense. A world I could count on and maybe even control. I would sit there for hours, doing puzzles. My parents used to marvel at how “good” I was at it. How “patient” I was. How much of a “stick-to-it-er” I was. I got such satisfaction at being called “good” at putting things together, especially when it was hard.
I also loved my china animals and played with them in the woods, tucking them into the forest floor and having trillium and fairy slipper parties with pine needle upside-down-cake and stone soup. Inherently, they broke. So I spent a lot of time with Super Glue as a child too, priding myself on how you could barely tell that my little china wonders had broken in the first place. Later, I got into mosaics—saving every single broken piece of china in my life in a box that travelled with me through my 20s and 30s until I finally had a home that I could count on, and started making mosaics for my garden steps. In short, I’ve been the assembler of broken bits.
I won’t say that my family is broken. I’ve never been able to tolerate the phrase “broken home” even when I was married and had my little family pack intact. Nothing is broken when there is love involved. And there is so much love at this table of mine with these two kids. BUT…they don’t live here anymore.
So what do I put back together? The likely answer is: me. I need to fix…me.
What pieces do I need to fix? If I’m that little girl at the puzzle table…and I get very very real…well, I need to fix my fear. My fear of, now what. My fear of Who am I just sitting alone in my house with all these pieces everywhere? My fear of all these stacks and piles that have accumulated over the years when my motherhood had to trump everything else. And yes, my fear of table-for-one. My fear of just me and so many pieces to put together all on my own. All through the holidays, I felt this overwhelming sense of, “It’s all on my shoulders. And shit man—I have really sturdy shoulders. Maybe this is what I was meant to be: A master puzzler. (If Will Shortz is reading this, will you marry me? Or at least come over for the Sunday morning puzzle over some really great Earl Grey?)
A master puzzler. Because I can tell you: I am not afraid of the pieces. At all. I expect them, in fact. Don’t you? I mean, life comes in puzzle pieces. So…maybe it’s the whole, that I’m actually afraid of. Huh. Maybe I’m afraid to trust that I will feel whole again, just me. That really scares me.
But why wouldn’t we believe in our wholeness? Why is it so much easier to believe in our brokenness? Some of us don’t believe there’s a whole, complete picture. But I do. I’m just trying to live into it, knowing that it changes as it grows, if I’m living it with any faith. That’s where I need to put my energy: on faith in the future. Not fear of it.
So…the kids gone. Me alone. Do I keep cooking elaborate meals like I have all Christmas and New Years– table for one in my own home? Do I do puzzles by myself? I can’t imagine that. Do I sit in the silence and write and write and write and take walks in the snowy woods and remember to take my cell phone because what if I need help out there? Mountain lions et al. Do I furiously fill up my house with friends and other people seeking community? Book group on Mondays, friend pot luc on Wednesdays, movie night on Fridays?
Or do I just let the pieces fall where they may and NOT pick them up anymore? What if I just let someone else pick them up? Or no one at all. I’m not talking about my bills and my taxes and my job and the pieces of my children’s lives that are still not totally independent. I’m talking about my heart. For all the times I judged women who came undone after their children left home, I’m now having a “sit down” with myself, as my grandmother used to say. I have not come undone. Not in the way that has people worried, myself included. It’s more in a way of finding what felt like a complete puzzle in an old drawer and breaking it apart so that I can do it all over again. Not cheating—but taking the chunks of whole sections and breaking them apart…so that they can become more whole. Starting from scratch. Only now, it’s not my little girl fingers. Or my mother fingers. It’s these fingers. They’re wrinkly and veiny and worn. I like these fingers. Now to like this puzzle of my life.
Here’s my solution: I’m taking off. For a month. Leave it all behind. Let the memories sort themselves out, let the well argue with the sceptic tank, and the pipes fight to stay warm all on their own. (please God). I’m going somewhere vastly different from where I live. I’m going to Morocco for the first time and I’m going solo. The more I plan it, the more I imagine myself in serious disorientation. Puzzle pieces on a table I’ve never seen before, and I’ve lost the box with the picture on top. Buses through foreign soil, small riads run by families and who knows if I’m their only guest– so it’s just me sitting there alone in courtyards in Fez, and Marrakech, Chefchaouen, and Essaouira, and gosh. Who knows who I will be.
I do know what I can count on, and that feels good. I know I’ll be hungry for delicious food. I’ll want to wander in nooks and crannies where not a lot of people go. I’ll want to sit at cafes and write. I’ll want to go to little artisanal shops and please don’t let me buy any more rugs. Well…maybe just…one. (I have a rug problem. c. Istanbul, 1986). I’ll want to ride a Barb-Arabian horse if I can find one. Preferably on a beach. I truly believe this trip is the antidote to my fear of what comes next in my life. Because I’ll be focusing on what I want, instead of what everybody else wants. And it won’t be considered selfish. I won’t let it be considered selfish. I’ll know, in my deepest heart of hearts, that it is absolutely mandatory for the next stage of my life. This is ME TIME, ladies and gentlemen of the unusually cruel jury that lives in my head. I’m going to go do what I want. Damnit.
If I back up to when I didn’t have children, I can say that I had more confidence in the complete puzzle. I saw it. I had the guy, the dreams, the house, the will. And BOY did I have the confidence.
Anthony Bourdain said he felt lonely a lot of the time, traveling around the world, having these incredible meals in these incredible places and not having anyone to share it with at the end of the day. Tony, maybe you absorbed our pain so that we can have a brighter future. (We miss you. I’m not sure that I’d marry you, though. In case you asked.) I want light now. Delight! What the holidays beg for: comfort and joy! I had it this holiday. Now to move into 2019 with more of the same. Just…me!
Yesterday, we shoved the Christmas tree out the French doors and put all the ornaments in the attic for next year. We finished the last puzzle. The first one was of doors. #symbolic. The last one was of a grizzly bear with a whole world of Montana, and of its tribe, in its body like it swallowed itself whole. And after they were all in bed, late night, I looked at it. Whole. And I thought, this is what I am now. This bear. I have swallowed my life whole, and now it’s time to swallow myself whole.
I felt lit from within. And I said it out loud. “That’s what I’m going to do. What my literary hero, Jim Harrison, declared for himself.”
I’ve decided to make up my mind about nothing, to assume the water mask,
to finish my life disguised as a creek, an eddy, joining at night the full, sweet flow, to absorb the sky,
to swallow the heat and the cold, the moon
and the stars, to swallow myself
in ceaseless flow.
To swallow myself in ceaseless flow. Whatever that means. If I find it in Morocco…I’ll let you know. I’ll hold the torch, in case you need it. In case you need to know that open doors await you if you just walk through. You are not alone in your fear or in your life. And really…I’m not either. We are in this together. We just have to get ourselves out into the world of puzzle pieces and try to put it all together best we can.
So happy New Year, everyone. May we step out of our fear and into our next…best…us.
Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2019
You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice. It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana! Click for more info.
March 20-24 (full with wait list)
May 8-12 (ah, the sweet month of May in Montana…darling buds and all.)
June 12-16 (great time of year for teachers. Time to fill YOUR cup!)
June 26-30 (ditto)
Sept 18-22 (my favorite time of year. Still warm during the day. Fire in the fireplace at night.)
Sept 25-29 (ditto)
***Haven Wander: Morocco (February 2019) is full