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I went into the fire. We all did.

Friday, April 10, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

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A guest post from Maya Stein

A few months after my 40th birthday, I inherited two teenage boys.

Let me explain.

In May 2012, I fell in love, quite unexpectedly, with a woman who lived three states away. We had been casual friends for a few years, and had only recently gotten closer. I was in the midst of a traveling writing project, Type Rider, which had me cycling from Amherst, Massachusetts to Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a typewriter in tow, collecting writings from strangers along my route. She was a very recently divorced stay-at-home mom, part-time editor and art teacher living in Northern New Jersey with her two children. It’s a long story about how we came together, so I’m going to skip the drawn-out details of our developing relationship and bring you to September 2012, three months after I completed my project and returned from the road, when I moved in with my new love and her boys, aged 11 and 13.

I can say that I knew what I was getting into – I’d visited New Jersey a number of times and had spent a few spotty evenings with the kids. But there was so much I didn’t and wouldn’t and couldn’t know about what our collective life would really look like. I was, after all, in those first throes of romance, in so many ways blissfully blind to my surroundings, including – in many ways – the fact of Amy’s kids. I was so eager to spend time with Amy in the flesh after those few months apart, so I hastily packed my bags and took the Peter Pan bus from Amherst to Manhattan on a sweltering September morning and wound my way to New Jersey from Port Authority. The boys were milking the last days of their summer vacation, off in all directions with their friends, so the house was quiet. I didn’t really think that I would stay – I don’t think any of us did – and in fact had begun looking into housing options in Manhattan, imagining cozy weekend getaways, Amy and me alone in the big city. All I knew was that I wanted to be closer than a three-drive. And Amy’s life was anchored here, in suburban North Jersey, with a house and responsibilities and a family that couldn’t easily be uprooted. I was on my own and ready for a change, and when I got off the final bus and walked toward Amy’s house, all I knew was that I wanted to be where she was.

But deep down, I understood that if I wanted to be with Amy, truly with her, my life had to be anchored here, too, on this quiet suburban street populated by outdoor basketball hoops, backyard grills, and family-sized SUVs. At first, there was actually something rather picturesque about this scene. I imagined neighborhood block parties and their proverbial borrow-a-cup-of-sugar intimacy. I thought of cocktails on summer porches and sledding hills in the town park. My apartment hunt ended as quickly as it began. It felt so seamless between us. I unpacked my suitcase and moved in.

Then the school year started, and the schedule began in earnest – homework and 6:30 dinnertimes and curfews. These were minor adjustments, precursors to the more unwieldy challenges that met our burgeoning relationship that first year. After my sepia-tinted arrival, there was my disorientation at living in a largely conservative, Italian-Catholic suburb. In New Jersey. There were residual tensions from the divorce. Amy’s parents’ were, at best, disoriented by our relationship and concerned about the wellbeing of their grandchildren. There were gossipy whispers from the neighbors. And there was the gawky reorientation Amy herself was facing as the fact of our relationship became more visible to her community of friends and family. But perhaps the single most important and intimidating shift for me was navigating the completely unfamiliar moonscape of living with – and learning to parent – teenage boys.

I had always assumed that I would become a mother. In my mid-20s, I was quite certain I would be pregnant within a decade. Ten years later and still childless (with zero pregnancies to my credit), I decided that if I didn’t meet a suitable partner to co-parent within 3 or 4 years, I would consider the possibility of bearing – and raising – a child myself. When my older sister became pregnant at 36, I thought I’d get a whiff of desire for it myself. Instead, when my nephew was born, I relished my new role as aunt, happy to take him for a spin around the block in his stroller or come over for a slightly chaotic dinner and book-reading before bed. I delighted in his development, not as a mother keenly fused to her child’s body and spirit, but as a separate being, a relative in all senses of the word, clapping and cheering from the sidelines.

There was no sidelining with Amy’s kids. When I moved in, they were at the rocky shore of adolescence. Play dates were a thing of their (far) distant past. Their strollers had been given away long ago. Instead, they were careening around the house, their emotions and need-states completely unpredictable. Even Amy was puzzled by what seemed like an overnight transformation from baby to boy. But she had the benefit of experience behind her, of having spent so many years bonding with her brood. To me, they were aliens – loud, messy beings consuming inhuman quantities of ice cream and potato chips.

I went into the fire. We all did. It didn’t feel like a choice. It felt like…necessity. 

My life with Amy needed to include her boys, even if it would take the next two years to begin to find a foothold into anything resembling comfort and stability, even if there were days we would probably all wonder if it would ever come.

Some things change so imperceptibly it feels like treading water for a good long time. Months went by when I thought I couldn’t take anymore – the younger one’s temper tantrums, the older one’s moodiness and remove, the after-school torpedoing of the house, when a half-dozen friends would bulldoze the front door, whip their giant sneakers on the hearth, and wreak havoc in the basement rec room for hours. There were uncountable moments when the quiet reverie I’d grown accustomed to while living on my own – all those luxurious hours to write to my heart’s content – felt like an island disappearing further and further out of my reach. In the zoo of a weekday afternoon, I missed it. A lot. Sometimes the clamor and clash of the boys would make my eyes sting. There were nights when I cried, disconsolate and overwhelmed, and Amy held me as I wept.

But by infinitesimally small degrees, I began to change my perspective, and reformat my attitude, and most of all, to open my heart.

We all did. The days continued. The seasons changed. My threshold for noise rose, millimeter by millimeter. I learned to manage the discomforts of adolescent turmoil, divorce fallout, the sideways glances of neighbors, and a town with an ambivalent acceptance of alternative families, and her parents struggling against political and religious belief systems to accept the truth of their daughter. It wasn’t just me, of course. Everyone adjusted, acclimated in their own way. The boys in particular. Because they had to. Because we all had to.

The fire does this. It bares our skin. It peels back our most earnest attempts at protection, at self-preservation. It separates the imagined from the real, fiction from the truth. Every morning Amy and I woke up, turned to each other, and whispered “Another day.” And every night, we lay back in bed, turned to each other, and said “Thank you.” I began to understand what people were talking about when they said “It’s about where you put your attention.” And I had Byron Katie in my ear: “Love what is.” I realized that the more I turned toward my surroundings rather than away from them, the more I was becoming part of them. The more they were becoming part of me. Over time, I felt less and less like a foreigner amid the strange language, gestures, and behaviors of these resident alien boys, who were, day by day, becoming less and less alien.

My friends tell me I’m brave for weathering this transition, which – of course – continues. My own family applauds my fortitude as the boys have moved into the wild thicket of teenage-hood. I often stand back and consider the vast chasm I crossed in a leap of faith for love. The learning is deep and broad, moving much like a tectonic plate does to form a new land mass. This is new country after all. The boys are teaching me resilience, patience, and vulnerability. Some days are raw and rigorous, and others sail by without incident. We move in an awkward little dance sometimes, but they come downstairs before they turn in and give me a kiss on my cheek. When Amy and I got married last summer, the younger one sealed the ceremony. “I now pronounce you bride and bride,” he proclaimed, and Amy and I embraced as newlyweds. And as I continue to explore and let myself relax into the role I finally married into, I hear the words “mother and mother” as an echo to his blessing. I am a mother after all. And I am becoming a better one every single day.

Maya Stein - Marianne ElliottMeet Maya.

Maya Stein is a Ninja poet, writing guide, and creative adventuress. She wrote her first poem, “Papa Tree and the Seasons,” when she was nine. It told the story of the life cycle of leaves, honing specifically on the fate of one little leaf that is the last one clinging before winter comes. She bound this poem into a little book, filled it with color pencil drawings, and proudly offered it up to her parents one evening. She sees now that this quite accurately represents the instincts behind most of her work to date–the desire to capture that which is most fleeting, to locate the heart of its beauty and power, sustain its life through language, and share that language with others. Maya has self-published four collections of writing, most recently “How We Are Not Alone,” a compilation of work from her blog.

Since 2005, Maya has kept a weekly writing practice, “10-line Tuesday,” and her poems now reach more than 1,300 people each week. She also leads “Feral Writing” workshops, both live and online, providing mentorship and guiding students through simple, often playful exercises and activities that help strengthen their creative instincts and develop a writing practice that sticks. Among her latest escapades are a 30-day tandem bicycle journey through the Midwest, a French crepe stand at a Massachusetts farmers market, a relocation from San Francisco to suburban New Jersey, a business collaboration— Food for the Soul Train — turning a vintage trailer into a mobile creative workshop space with her partner, and most recently, marriage and step-motherhood. Her favorite body part is her left hand, as it has gifted her with the ability to sink a nearly invincible hook shot, peel a whole apple without a break, and transcribe the poems living in her heart. You can learn more about Maya’s adventures at www.mayastein.com.


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2 Responses to "I went into the fire. We all did."

  1. So, so beautiful, and I love getting another perspective of this entire journey. Even though I watched much of this unfold, this helps me see and understand even more, and love you more.

  2. This design is spectacular! You definitely know how to keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

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