One December when our sons were little, I hung a piece of paper painted a deep dark blue in our kitchen. “A sky,” I told them. I painted another piece of paper gold, cut out about a hundred small stars and put them in a basket, along with a glue stick.
My hope was to distract the boys a bit from the idea of “getting” things for Christmas, and to shift the emphasis instead to the kinds of simple acts of kindness that actually make us feel good inside ourselves.
I knew I wouldn’t have much luck telling them that the shortest route to happiness isn’t paved with possessions. (Try explaining that to a six- year-old who has been trying to prioritize his Christmas list.) They wouldn’t believe me if I suggested that more stuff doesn’t ever equal a better life. Or that a sure-fire antidote to restlessness and craving is to do something nice for someone else.
I wanted them to discover for themselves the joy of giving, the deeper meaning of the season.
And so, for every random, unsolicited act of kindness anyone in the family did during the day, we placed a star into the sky. Each night at dinnertime, we turned off all the kitchen lights, lit candles in an Advent wreath on our table, held hands and said our grace. And then, as the painted sky filled with stars, we talked about opportunities we’d each found during the day to do good deeds.
The December of Good Deeds was such a long time ago. For some unknown reason, we only did it once. And yet it is one of my favorite holiday memories, ever.
Last night, Henry and Steve and I grabbed the afghans and lined up on the couch together to watch a couple of Tivoed episodes of “The Daily Show.” The clips of shoppers mauling each other in a race to claim discounted printers, dollar DVDs, and Rachel Ray cookware on Black Friday were more horrifying than funny. Jon Stewart didn’t need to say much about the stabbing in Virginia over a parking space, the shooting at Kohl’s, or the mayhem at Wal-Mart. There was no need to comment on Sarah Palin’s claim last week that she loves the commercialization of Christmas, because it reminds us all that this is the “most cheerful holiday on the calendar.” All he had to do was play the footage.
This morning, I woke up early, still haunted and disturbed by those scenes. We are warm and dry and safe and well-fed here. There is nothing anyone in my family needs or wants so badly that we would line up outside a store at 6 a.m. to get it. No one went shopping the day after Thanksgiving.
But I also realize what a luxury our comfort is. I don’t want to take any of what I have for granted – not the food in our refrigerator, not the heat rising from the grates on the floor, not the laptop on which I type these words, nor the fact that, at 6:30 in the morning, I am privileged enough to be sitting on the couch in my pajamas writing a blog post, rather than driving through darkness to get to work on time. I can’t even begin to know what it’s like to live in a constant state of not-enough.
And yet, I’m certainly not immune to the pressures of the season. [continue...]
“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”
– from E.B. White on Dogs
I almost didn’t write about losing our beloved dog Gracie last week. My grief felt so raw, so private, and so painful. I wasn’t sure I could put it into words or share it in public. Our family was in mourning, tender and sad. My first impulse was to turn inward, to hunker down in my house and have a long cry.
On the other hand, for the last four years I’ve made a practice of writing here about both the joys and challenges of my life, reflections that are always personal but that also, I hope, touch something universal. I had written about our Gracie while she lived. It seemed only fitting to let you know she was gone.
Each day this week, I lit a candle in the midst of a makeshift Gracie altar in the middle of our kitchen. We have taken some solace in having lots of photos of her propped up along the shelf. Her empty collar is here. Her leash. Her tennis ball and ball flinger. A bit of her white tail hair, tied in a ribbon. It feels both good and sad to have these things, and to have a place to go when we wonder why she isn’t where she belongs, curled up in a tidy oval shape on the rug or sitting, alert, on her favorite rock in the back yard. [continue...]
Everyone we know who’s ever loved and lost a dog told us the same thing: that she would let us know when it was time to say good-bye. And of course, she did.
Yesterday morning we let Gracie go, with sad hearts but also certain that it was her day to leave us.
Since she was diagnosed with cancer just a month ago, on Oct. 17, Gracie rose to the challenge of treatment just the way she did everything else in her life: willingly, without fuss or fanfare, and with complete trust in her humans to do what was best for her. We took a big swing at it, with three rounds of chemo, and were amazed and thrilled as she gained back weight and strength and her zest for life.
A week ago, she was like her old self — up at dawn, taking long morning walks, playing in the leaves, chasing balls and sticks. (Steve took this photo last weekend, as Gracie eagerly did her part during fall clean-up at my parents’ house.)
There were no bad days. These past few weeks have been about massages and Reiki and hand-feeding, lots of special, home-cooked food, visits with all her friends, treats and walks and togetherness. We had the great gift of getting her back for a little while, knowing as well that things could turn at any moment. When they did, we took our cues from her. [continue...]
I’ve been paying close attention to the weather lately. Over the last few days, frost has claimed the last of the nasturtiums outside the kitchen door. The maple tree, as of yesterday, is bare, save for two golden leaves stubbornly clinging.
“The leaves fell so much earlier than usual this year,” I’ve been saying to my husband, as if we’ve been deprived of something; an extra week of gazing at them perhaps. “It’s gotten colder sooner.” He doesn’t believe me, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.
And then it occurs to me: I have a record.
It was just a year ago that two young filmmakers from Boston drove up to our house in New Hampshire to shoot the book trailer for Magical Journey. I was watching the weather pretty closely that week, too, worried it would be freezing by the time we finally had a shot list together and that late October would prove too stark and wintry to allow for the kind of carefree outdoor moments I’d been envisioning.
I haven’t watched the video myself for a year, not since the day I okayed the final cut and sent it off to my publisher to post on YouTube, with fingers crossed that it might inspire a few book sales. Perhaps some movie stars get used to seeing themselves on film or hearing the sound of their own recorded voices, but I doubt I ever will. It’s easier not to look. [continue...]
It wasn’t lost on me that I read Kate Hopper’s lovely memoir, Ready for Air, earlier this month, while in the air myself.
Beside me, squeezed into the too-small middle seat, my 6’1″ son Jack was reading his own book. I kept glancing over at him, aware that this was the last trip the two of us would take together for quite a while. Aware, too, that I was already preparing myself for the moment when I would bid him goodbye in Atlanta, leave him to his new life as a student there, and fly home without him.
Kate’s subtitle is “A Journey through Premature Motherhood.” It sounds specific, and it is. This is a story about a baby girl born too soon, about a young woman’s struggle to be strong and brave in the face of one terrifying complication after another, of a marriage that is tested and ultimately strengthened by adversity, of a baby whose struggle to survive offers both a compelling read and something better: a reminder that, in the largest sense, our human stories are all variations on a theme. For isn’t the real journey — through motherhood, through every relationship we ever have, through life itself — really about learning to work with things as they are rather than as we wish they could be? [continue...]