Adulthood for Amateurs

Five years ago today, my husband and I signed the papers on the property that we now call home.  I remember that day well, how nervous I was, already second guessing myself and fearful that we were doing the wrong thing.  It was a gorgeous October day much like this one, cloudless and crisp, just a few leaves left on the trees. We finished the closing and drove up from town, to our new land and our dilapidated little cottage.  Sitting outside that autumn morning next to my reluctant partner in this enterprise, sipping a coffee from Nonie’s, I tried hard to make the moment special.  We had just bought ourselves a house, after all, and ten acres of rocky fields, and a lovely view of Pack Monadnock. But neither of us was feeling very excited; there was, obviously, no turning back, and we weren’t quite sure how to go forward.  Would we actually live here, in the old cottage?  It seemed so remote that morning,  so meager and run-down, compared to what we’d left behind.  I wondered if we would actually be happy here, whether we would be able to fix up the house, whether we would ever come to feel that this New Hampshire hilltop was where we are really meant to be.

Yesterday, Steve and I raked leaves.  The view across the mountains is completely familiar now and yet always surprising; washed with color on a perfect fall afternoon, the spectacle of dappled mountain against blue sky still holds me in thrall.  Henry, home  for fall break, was reading in the hammock, tossing tennis balls for Gracie.  Day by day, I’ve been cutting back the garden, pulling out the annuals, cleaning up the beds.  But the chrysanthemums are still blooming, and the kitchen herbs continue to thrive.  The place looks pretty good.  Everywhere I turn, I see something that we have planted, built, or tended–and also something that still needs to be done.  As we hauled a huge tarp load of leaves down through the field to our growing burn pile, I asked my husband, “If you had the chance to do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you have stayed put, or are you glad that we moved, and ended up here?”

“Moving made me less afraid of the unknown,” he said.  ”And a lot more open to change.  But even apart from that, I can finally say I’m glad we did it.  Life here is better than I expected, and even if we’d never moved at all, our lives would have changed anyway.”

Hypothetical questions are silly.  But I knew that our house “anniversary” was coming up today, and I couldn’t resist asking.  I feel lucky to be here, too, and grateful for the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Leaving one home and making another one was a way to test ourselves, to sift through a lot of our assumptions about what it means to live well, to figure out what’s important and hold on to that, while letting go of a lot that we’d always thought we needed.  The thing is, even now, after giving up one way of life, in one place, for another life elsewhere; after tearing down a house and building a new house from scratch and moving in; after sending one son off to college and getting the other midway through high school; after writing a book about all that and  then hitting the road to publicize it, I still feel as if I’m sorting all this stuff out.  I still have to figure out what really matters, every single day.  Change is still scary to me, even though we’ve lived through plenty of it. And yet, my life is also filled with great joy and countless things to be grateful for.  Mornings, I get up eager to see what the day will bring. At night I step outside, look up at the stars, and feel glad to be exactly where I am.  This week, I’ve been surprised that the leaves have already fallen here, that frost came so early, that I still miss Henry so much when he’s not around, that Jack is so tall and so funny.  Tonight, I was even surprised that dinner took so long to prepare, and then, that sitting around the table–our last night together before Henry goes back to school–felt at once so wonderful and so bittersweet.  Sometimes I wonder, will all of this, any of it, ever start to feel like old hat?  Or will life continue to take me by surprise forever?

We flicked on the news for a few minutes after dinner, and saw author Michael Chabon interviewed on the PBS News Hour.  He’s written a new book of essays called “Manhood for Amateurs.”  ”I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a pro at any of this stuff,” Chabon said.  I know exactly what he means.  The fact is, we are all just feeling our way here, trying our best to be parents, spouses, friends, daughters and sons.  Long experience of living on the planet doesn’t necessarily make us great at being human beings, but our passion for the work will take us far.  Five years after making the leap, I’m glad we landed here, and I’m also well aware that the challenge of crafting a life doesn’t end with a house being built, or a son leaving home, or a book being completed.  It’s ongoing.  And being a passionate amateur is perfectly ok.

Halloween shopping

Every year since my younger son Jack was three or so, we have tried on Halloween masks together.  It was always Jack’s holiday, the plans for some elaborate costume taking shape weeks in advance, the scarier the better.  When he was really young, he was happy to go trick-or-treating in whatever sweet little outfit I dreamed up for him–a tiny vampire, a tiger, a pumpkin.  But the age of innocence didn’t last long.  He wanted to be terrifying.  Whereas Henry was content to paw through a bag of cast off clothes or to grab an old dress out of my closet and stick a witch hat on his head at the last minute, Jack wanted a full-bore, frontal-assault sort of costume.  The kind that could not possibly be homemade, but absolutely had to be store-bought, preferably dripping fake blood.  He wanted a knife or a spear or a hatchet to carry, and would not be caught dead putting a jacket on over his black flowing garments, no matter how chilly Halloween night turned out to be.  The costume ruled.

Yesterday morning, Jack and I set out early with a shopping list he’d made the night before–all the things he’s discovered he can’t live without these days.  Tea bags, boxes of cereal, Clearasil, a hot water heater. . . We were efficiently checking things off the list — until we found ourselves alone in the Halloween section of Walmart. It was hard to resist pausing to critique this year’s batch of outrageous masks. Jack pulled a clown mask over his head, and I slipped on a piece of zombie headgear, complete with creepy little arms dangling from the sides.  Pretty soon, we had tried on every mask on the shelf and contemplated a few mullet wigs as well.

Last year at this time, Jack and I were pretty much at a stand-off with one another.  His sixteenth year hasn’t been easy for any of us, a time of tremendous growth and transformation, challenge and worry. We’ve fought about everything, had many intense heart-to-heart talks, and have worked hard over the last few months, each in our own ways, to find new, healthier ways to relate to one another. In a few weeks, he’ll turn seventeen.  He’s happy, doing well in school, nearly grown up. It is easy, once again, for us to enjoy one another’s company.

Jack didn’t buy a mask for Halloween.  But our detour down the mask aisle brought back lots of good memories for us both.  I realize that what I remember most clearly now is not all the actual Halloween nights of his childhood, but rather our annual trips together in search of the perfect mask.  And how, year after year I, a fully grown woman, willingly tried on ghoul and ghost faces for my son.  How much fun we had together, when I wasn’t in a rush to get the job done, or to get somewhere else, but slowed down to his pace, and took the time to play and ponder.  That’s what we did yesterday.  It felt, for a few minutes, as if he were just a little kid again.  ”We’ve always done this,” he said, as we left the Halloween aisle and headed off in search of batteries and earbuds. “Wouldn’t miss it,”  I answered.

Writing class

Sixteen autumns ago, when my younger son Jack was a baby, I took a writing class in Harvard Square.  Wednesday morning was the high point of my week.  I would riffle through my closet, trying to pull together an outfit that wasn’t stained with spit up and that didn’t shout out “suburban housewife,” the babysitter would arrive, and I would jump into my car and head down Mass Ave., thrilled to have an excuse to buy a new notebook and a nice pen, to be out and about without an infant in a stroller or carried on my back, happy instead to be part of the hustle and bustle of undergraduates and academics in the Square.  I made a point of getting into town early on those fall mornings, so that I could linger over a pot of strong mint tea at Algiers, and put the finishing touches on my piece for the week.  Sometimes, I wrote the whole thing right there in the hour before class, notebook balanced on a teeny, tippy table in the window, scribbling down the events of the hours I had just lived through–waking up before dawn with a toddler in our bed, changing the baby, finding a private moment with my husband, greeting the day.

Our class, held in a dusty first-floor classroom at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, was led by a woman with a weirdly wonderful name:  Mopsy Strange Kennedy, herself something of an ageless, enigmatic Cambridge institution.  With her head of wild red hair, heavily lined eyes, tight boucle sweaters and mini-skirts, she was an unlikely muse.  And yet, she managed to set a tone each week that was some kind of magical amalgam of therapy session, cocktail party, and staged reading.  She gave us provocative assignments (“Write the biography of your hair”), which we were free to do or not, and loads of encouragement.  She found something to like in every piece, and, buoyed aloft by her enthusiasm, even the shyest among us found the courage to read our work aloud.  We were a varied lot of aspiring writers–retirees determined to get their memories down on paper, twenty-somethings in search of themselves, zesty post-menopausal women eager to write new life chapters, and me, a former book editor who had always believed that I was much better at improving a “real” writer’s work than trying to say something of my own.  What we shared was a passionate love of books and prose, and, inspired by Mopsy’s effusive praise, a willingness to be cheerleaders for one another’s humble efforts.

Week after week, for want of a more compelling subject,  I found myself writing about the life I was living in that moment–my first attempt to make jam, the last of the tomatoes in the garden and my bouquet of nasturtiums on the windowsill, my sons, myself.  ”You have the perfect life,” a classmate said to me once, over coffee.  Her remark surprised me; perfect it most definitely was not.  And yet, by paying attention to the way things actually were, by caring enough about the ordinary details of my everyday life to write about them, I could see that I was imbuing that life with a kind of grace, or sanctity, that I had never quite appreciated before.  To me, the most compelling subject of all, it seemed, was the present moment.  Could I live it fully?  Could I capture it, perhaps hold onto it, by writing it down?

Yesterday, my mom and I paid a visit to Mopsy’s class.  My mother had found her own writing voice in that room, a few years after I left the class, and had made lasting friendships there at a time of great transition in her life.  ”Go take Mopsy’s class,” I’d advised her, and so she did, and began to write about her marriage, her losses, her hopes for the future.  So it was quite a treat, all these years later, to return as honored visitors.  One of my mother’s old classmates (still a loyal attendee after thirteen years!) had invited us to come together, and the timing was perfect.  My mother has an essay she wrote in this month’s edition of The Sun magazine.  I had my new book to bring.  We could return in glory, two published writers.

This time, I left home at 7 am, and drove to Harvard Square from New Hampshire.  And all the way down the highway, I thought about how important that first class had been to me, at a time when I wondered if I had anything at all to say.  What I’d come to realize, sitting alone with my notebook in Algiers, or reading aloud to a group of kind-hearted souls, is that as long as we write what we love, it is worth doing, if only to honor that which is beautiful and precious and fleeting in our lives.  The file folder in my desk drawer from that autumn sixteen years ago holds brief word pictures of my life as it was then, a life that seems so long ago that I can only reach out and touch it by reading those words.  How grateful I am now that I paused then, in the heat of the moment, and wrote something down.

Connecting

“You ought to Twitter,” my book publicist told me months ago.  ”No thanks,” I said, “it’s just not me.”  A month later, a friend advised the same thing.  ”Want to reach out to your on-line market?” she asked.  ”I’ll help you get started.”  Once again, I demurred.  I wasn’t exactly sure what Twittering was, but I didn’t think I needed to know either.  But when a writer friend from California told me how many book people she’s met through Twitter, I began to reconsider; she is not a high-tech junkie, she’s a serious writer who is making good use of the tools available to her to reach out to potential readers.  It seemed as if the stars in the Twitterverse were lining up. By Monday afternoon, thanks to a three-hour tutorial with another friend at my kitchen table, I was sending out my first experimental tweets.

I’m still not sure that this is “me.”  I write slowly, and usually with lots of words.  Tweets are blurty, and limited to 140 characters.  Every time I go over the limit, the little message box on my computer screen turns bright red: Edit yourself! I’m learning.  And I’m determined not to tweet unless I actually have something to say.  The amazing thing, however, is that all of a sudden, I am connected to booksellers across the country.  And I am reading tweets by people who have interesting insights into the things I care about–simplicity, motherhood, creating a meaningful life.  Links to terrific articles come my way.  Yesterday, after reading a sad, provocative op-ed piece about the death of Gourmet magazine in the New York Times, it took me all of about five seconds to share it with everyone I know on Facebook and Twitter.  If I’m so moved, I can also pretty much follow what David Pogue, the technology writer for the New York Times, thinks about all day long.  (He tweets as he breathes, it seems.)  It’s new, it’s fun.  And I can see that Twittering could easily turn into a full-time obsession–the bigger your online world becomes, the more compelling it seems, and the less time you have left over for the real one that’s right under your nose.  The thing is though, I like the real world way too much to give up any significant amount of my time to a virtual one.

This morning I took a long walk with my friend Maude, who I haven’t seen all summer.  She brought me a book she’d loved, and some saved poppy seeds from her garden.  Outside, the dogs ran ahead, chasing squirrels and tearing around in circles. And we walked our favorite seven-mile route through woods and down country roads.  The dogs had a chilly swim, we marveled at all the different shades of brown and yellow that ferns turn in the fall, and we caught up on each other’s news–in a leisurely way, and in person.  We realized how much we’ve missed one another’s company, and how happy we were to have two hours together, to talk about books and gardens and what we intend to do with the rest of our lives.  By the time we’d restored ourselves at my house with some hot tea, and I’d read her the first part of an essay I’ve been working on, we both felt full and heard and satisfied.

Connection happens in all sorts of ways, through all sorts of mediums.  It is pretty cool to get a tweet from a stranger in Australia.  But I worry a bit about the busyness of the world, and the pace at which our abbreviated communications fly around the globe.  I guess I’m just not quite comfortable moving that fast.  And I know that when we get too caught up in the business of being in touch, we lose our real connections–with one another and with ourselves.

 

A widening circle

It’s been a month since The Gift of an Ordinary Day was published.  No bestseller lists, no rave reviews in the New York Times, no calls from Oprah.  There are still a lot of books stacked up on bookstore tables across the land.  And yet, to my mind anyway, the book already feels like a success, thanks to all the readers who have discovered it, read it, and then taken the time to write to me and say, “I’m glad you wrote this book, and I’m glad I found it.”

Sitting on the couch in my kitchen all those months ago, typing away, it was easy to pretend that no one would ever actually read what I was writing. With that mindset, I could confess my doubts and fears about growing older, admit that I once hid my seventh grader’s clothes, wrestle with my emotions as the day approached for my older son to leave home, make lists of the mundane things I’m grateful for.  Often, at the end of the day, I would wonder if I was just wasting my time, trying to put words to all these private thoughts and feelings.  When the book finally came out, and I headed out into the world, to visit bookstores and do interviews, I sort of felt as if I were running around in my pajamas–not totally naked, but oddly exposed and vulnerable.

Then the first letter arrived in my inbox, from a woman in California, just my age. ”You and I are kindred spirits and I am sure we would be fast friends if we were to meet,” she wrote.  ”After spending an emotional afternoon yesterday finalizing the college list with my senior son and husband, who is quite opinionated about what he is willing to pay for, I had the good fortune to spend a half an hour wandering around a book store.  Finding “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” was like finding a vintage Valentino gown in a thrift shop.  I couldn’t wait to get home and read the chapter on ‘Applying.’”

Tracy went on to tell me a bit about her  family, and how my words had seemed to validate some of the things she already felt to be true.  That relationships matter, for example.  That it is ok to be still.  That sometimes just taking a long deep breath is more important than accomplishing something on a list. At the end of her long e-mail, Tracy wrote, “I think we feel the same way about life.”  I had to agree.

Last night, my dear new friend who I’ve never met held a gathering for a group of friends at her house outside of Los Angeles.  They were meeting to discuss The Gift of an Ordinary Day with one another, and to to put together care packages for their kids in college.  Since Tracy’s daughter is in Cairo for the semester (and, as she learned the hard way, shipping to Cairo costs a fortune), she had offered to put together a package for my son Henry, who is in Minnesota.  ”Hope he will like a bunch of kooky stuff from California,” she wrote the other day.

Meanwhile, Tracy is sending copies of my book to her friends from all over. . .and the conversation among us mothers across the country is expanding by the day.  Yesterday, I opened my e-mail to find a note from yet another kindred spirit.  The words touched my heart: “While reading your book, so many of my thoughts and realizations found not only companionship but validation and hope.    Thank you for becoming my ‘partner’ with your book, comforting me with your words and easing my way to surrender. I know that this process won’t be easy or quick…but I’m on my way.”

Today, I am sitting on the couch in my kitchen, computer balanced on my knees, looking out at the same mountains that inspired me to put down roots in this small New England town five years ago.  But all of a sudden now, I feel a part of a much wider community, new friends with stories to share and words of support and encouragement.  Who knows, someday we all may meet in person somewhere, to walk on a beach, cook dinner, and compare notes face to face.  But until then, how grateful I am to know that we are connected by words, shared sensibilities, common hopes and dreams for ourselves and for our children.

Let the conversation continue.  I am glad to know you!