Blush pink, tender edged petals, powder white in the center. Translucent leaf veins. Green tinted light. Rough bark warmed by morning sun.
I climbed trees when I was fourteen and discussed the nature of the heart in twisted branches after school with my best friend. I’m 35 now and I’ve just discovered there’s a perch in the dogwood tree that sits outside my pumpkin colored ranch house. It’s May and the flowers sing. I’m curved like a half moon against limbs, staring through blossoms into the beyond.
I wish my cat could be up here with me. Alas, he’s on tiger patrol (an invisible task force that operates in the fifth dimension and requires him to stare blankly out windows, randomly gallop through the living room, bite ankles and nap for up to eight hours at a time).
My stepsons want my husband and I to build a fort in this tree with them. I press my back into the branch and imagine a platform and their playful banter. The code they keep between them - a series of pokemon powers and poop jokes, an abiding need to rile each other up, a profound dedication to their brotherhood.
Right now the boys are at school. Alec is at work. And my best friend I used to climb with, she lives in Philly.
Birds signal flute-like while the windchimes resonate honeyed vibrations. The subtlety of sweet tones is a balm to my ears. I’m new to parenting and my stepsons are loud. To ensure their audience is never bored, they incorporate many variations into their high-volumed repertoire, such as car engine spaceship static spit riffs, dog whistle screams when they knock into each other ‘by accident’ and the general shouting of the word, Dad, even when Dad is two feet away from them. They sometimes throw tantrums the size of Montezuma in the living room that appear to be motivated by the erroneous placement of chia seeds in oatmeal and the subsequent offense taken by the chia seed victim and his fate of high antioxidants. They also offer dimpled grins in exchange for the excitement of being alive, somersault to the dinner table and ask questions like, “If reincarnation is real, what if we are our own ancestors?” I mean...woah.
Their beauty and intensity, their power and their struggle - it’s one of the most daunting and transformative paradoxes I’ve encountered. Integrating as a family has been vulnerable and humbling. I feel like I’m in a play I didn’t rehearse for, but the rest of the cast, they’ve been rehearsing for years. I don’t know my lines, so I’m improvising, which gives me the constant feeling that I’m about to fuck up and also I thought the play was about horses, but they are performing a show about the queen of England, so our theatrical motivations are a bit out of sync.
When I have bouts of stage fright, I remind myself, between deep, calming breaths, that this opportunity - it’s what I’ve been asking for.
For so long, I’ve wanted to know Love as my teacher, my master, my guide. I’ve wanted to find space in my own pain where Love can grow. I’ve wanted to experience Love as a living practice that does not reside in my intellect, that does not negate my humanness, that does not avoid my darkness. I’ve wanted to relate to Love the way I relate to breath - with unquestioning reliance.
As an introverted, only child who finds sibling relationships mysterious and genuinely enjoys silence, standing between two brothers while one flails his arms at the other and screams at the top of his lungs, “You ate my muuuuffffiiiiin!!!!”, is a prime time to find the reliance I speak of. It is in the company of panic, when we most need the presence of love.
It’s hard to ignore my judgements. There is a part of me that is rolling her eyes and thinking things like, “Are you f*#$ing serious right now with the muffin angst and the chia chaos?”
There is a part of me that is drowning in despair about entitlement and the ways I too reflected this entitlement in my own childhood. Sometimes I’m not able to hold it down. Sometimes I walk right out of the room, put my head under a pillow and let my husband deal. But sometimes I stay in the heat of the moment and I breathe and I say,
“Alright Love. Here we go. Teach me. Teach me how to open instead of close. Teach me how to guide them out of this space into a place of growth. Teach me to love them through their process, no matter how messy, loud or disruptive. In loving them, teach me how to love myself and everyone around me, deeper, wider, truer.”
I remind myself in these moments of high intensity that the family bond we are growing - it is our own masterpiece. It is guided by some tender kind of destiny.
We have been walking toward each other for a long time.
I strolled into my neighborhood grocery store one day when I was 24-years-old and headed to the deli. I’d just returned from a year abroad in Brazil. I was easeful from so much sun and confident from so much travel. I spotted Alec behind the counter and caught my breath. He proceeded to direct his super sized smile beam at my face and my heart jumped like those cats when they notice those cucumbers. Like that. Straight up in my chest. (If you don’t know what I am talking about: youtube, cats/cucumbers. Hilarious).
I’ve known Alec since middle school, but we’d never exchanged more than a few greetings. I watched him walk down the hallway in eleventh grade with his royal blue track shorts, his dark olive legs and his arm around his lovely girlfriend, both of them shining super sized smile beams at everyone because they were in love and it was uncontainable.
I always wondered what it felt like to be on the receiving end of his shine.
Social media kept me in tune with his wanderings over the years. I knew he’d broken up with his high school sweetheart. I knew he’d gone to college for a bit in New Mexico. I knew he’d moved back to Portland. I knew he worked at my neighborhood grocery store.
I approached the counter and he gave my arm a squeeze. He asked me what I’d been up to.
“I’ve been traveling,” I said, and he grinned again, brushed a piece of dark hair behind his ear. He didn’t rush to take my order. I told him I was studying dance in Brazil and because I couldn’t stay still in the clear, buoyant quality of his gaze, I quickly changed the focus.
“What’s new in your life?”
“Well,” he paused and I watched his topaz brown eyes glisten. “My partner and I are about to have a baby.”
I didn’t understand what happened next. I only understand it now, 10 years later, as I sit beside Alec, who I call husband and his oldest boy, who I call stepson.
A chill rushed down my spine. There was a shifting in my ribs. There was the sense that this news pertained to me and it was important.
“That’s wonderful.” I swallowed and tried to match his glisten.
I felt so different from him then. I was getting ready to graduate college. I was planning my next trip to Brazil. I was thinking about moving to New York City. I wanted to reach out and grab his hand. I wanted to say, “Please keep in touch with me.”
But I didn’t. I let him make me a sandwich, then I said, “It was so great to run into you!”
I swayed my hips as I walked away because I wasn’t fifteen anymore and I wanted him to notice. I let the resonance of my future self ring through my cells for a moment, then dismissed the hum as nothing more than the jitter of a long time crush.
The oldest is sitting on the couch with me waiting for his dad and brother to grab their ice cream so we can start the movie.
“Where’s Dublin?” he asks and I scan the living room for my fluffy feline guru, but he’s nowhere to be found.
“We need to get him, so the whole family’s here,” the oldest says firmly and he rises to hunt down the cat.
My heart thud thuds and I look toward Alec who is smiling at me from the kitchen. It’s the first time I’ve been incorporated by one of the boys into the verbal delineation of family.
Alec has talked me down often, late at night, when I’m freaking out about the challenges of finding our groove as a unit. He’s reminded me gently, that we all belong to each other. That, “this is how families work, Jocelyn. It’s okay. It’s messy, it’s hard, we fall all over ourselves, but we learn and we move forward. We love each other through the learning.”
I remember Alec’s eyes at the grocery store when he told me he was preparing to welcome his first baby into the world. The road between then and now has felt very long, but sometimes, sudden like, it disappears and there is only a circle of connection, unbroken and eternal.
I’m filled with reverence for the necessity of all our wandering, as I watch the oldest return with the chubby cat - the cat who doesn’t question that we are his family, but seriously questions if it’s necessary to disturb his regal slumber for a movie about space ships. I mean, he knows all about space ships. He invented them for christ’s sake.
The boys have two homes and two families. They have willingly expanded their hearts to encompass the change that split their world open two years ago. I am still trying to understand what it means to be a stepparent. These loud, magic children, they provide me endless opportunities to be a student of Love - which is the only role we were ever assigned to play.
Purple irises with yellow fringed bellies shoot up from the grass below.
This is the first spring I’ve watched the dogwood tree blossom and rested in her curving cradle. This is the first spring in our new house together, all four of us, (plus our cat ruler, Dublin the Great).
One day soon, there will be a platform here and two boys will play and make lots of ear splitting, outrageous noise. The petals will fall on their heads like soft edged blessings, like blown kisses made visible.
I will look at Alec as he looks at them and I will feel the resonance of our destiny.
I will not dismiss its sound or its beauty. I will move closer and forget all my lines. I will open my heart and so help me, I will improvise.