Living the good life

  I parked my car on the dirt road, slipped through the handmade twig gate, and followed a winding path through the frozen garden just as the first snowflakes began to fall.

Thirty years ago, the owners of this remote bit of countryside had two young sons, no money, and a dream. They wanted a good life, a house of their own, a piece of land on which to grow food for their family.

When I met Bill and Eileen for the first time last summer, I was struck most of all by their joy.  And then by the improbability of their secluded paradise–twenty-five resplendent acres of organic vegetables, exotic trees, berries, poppies and peonies, and a wealth of rare ornamental plants–all hidden away at the end of a long dirt road on a wooded hillside.  The overall effect was at once sacred and exuberant; the garden as sanctuary and playground.

I fell in love with it at first sight.  And I’ve returned a few times since that hot July day when poppies and day lilies ran rampant and raspberries approached their peak.  ”Come whenever you like,” Eileen had said, “just close the gate behind you.”  And so I took her at her word, and visited the garden in the fall, just before frost, and again in the barren chill of early winter.  Wandering the empty paths, listening to the whuush of wind through the pines, sitting on a bench and allowing the stillness of this lovely spot to work its magic on me, I wondered about the people who had created it.

Finally, this morning, I went back to get properly acquainted.  We sat in the kitchen, cozy and warm near the old Waterford cookstove, as snow fell thick and fast beyond the window.  The beams in the cabin, Bill told me, were all from oak he’d felled right here.  He and Eileen had cleared the woods themselves, cranked the stumps and split the logs with an ax.  They dug a cellarhole, mixed cement in a wheelbarrow, and built a foundation of rocks extracted from the earth beneath their feet.  And then they built their cabin, as well as a small outbuilding for their teenaged sons, with their own hands, learning as they went.

Meanwhile, they practiced self-sufficiency for a year in a rented house down the road, to make sure they had what it takes to live the simple life they envisioned:  no electricity, no telephone, no running water or flush toilets, no refrigerator, no central heat.  By the time the cabin was closed in, Eileen and Bill felt they were ready too.

After thirty years, and two sons grown and gone, the novelty of going to bed with the sun and rising at first light has long since worn off.  And what began as a great experiment in subsistence has evolved into a deeply cherished, profoundly satisfying way of life.   Bill was delighted to show me his ingenious plumbing system and his hand pump in the basement — ten minutes of vigorous pumping in the morning yields enough water for the day.  Eileen led me into the “tub room” for a peek at her hand-powered wringer washing machine and a deep old-fashioned bathtub surrounded by candles.  I admired the jars of food put by, beans and tomatoes arranged neatly on pantry shelves.  I paid a visit to the composting toilet, admired the cabbages wrapped in newspaper in the root cellar, and felt a twinge of envy as I scanned the floor-to-ceiling book-lined shelves, the beginnings of a jigsaw puzzle on a table by a window, the hammock hung high between two posts in the living room, the pair of reading chairs set side by side in the bedroom, where Bill and Eileen begin each day with books and mugs of tea.  Such intimacy. Such quiet. Such peace.

“Most of the other back-to-the-landers from the seventies ended up getting divorced,” Eileen said, laughing.  “Or else they got a little money in the bank and traded up — to the kinds of comforts we  decided we could do without.”

And yet, comfort is exactly what I experienced as I sat with these two brand new acquaintances who felt, immediately, like dear old friends.  Friends and mentors, I should say, who know in their bones what it means to live in the moment, in harmony with the seasons, with a deep, abiding love for what is.

“Your life is your practice,” says Zen writer Karen Maezen Miller on her daily blog.  I’ve been been absorbing the truth of those words for a week or two now.  This morning, I understood.

Something is going to happen

When my boys were small we had a favorite winter book called “Something is Going to Happen.”  As the family wakes up on a cold winter day, each of them senses that “something is going to happen.”  A young child gets dressed in silence, the baby lies still, listening from his crib, the mother and father look at one another knowingly, the dog sniffs the air.  One by one, the family members gather in hushed early morning stillness, and then open the door to gaze out upon the first snow of winter.

We loved reading that book aloud, loved the rhythm of the simple sentences, the sense of mystery and suspense that builds around something as natural as snow, the way the author invites us to tune in and pay attention to the subtle energies at work in the world around us.

This week, I thought of that book for the first time in years, the title running unbidden through my head. “Something is going to happen.”

It wasn’t an imminent snow fall that stirred this feeling, however, but the equally mysterious process by which word of mouth spreads.  Like those first, drifting flakes of snow, it starts slowly at first, one person telling another person.  And then, just as a storm seems to gather its own force, so too does news or information take on a life of its own, traveling at breakneck speed through the ether.

It started Tuesday, when I received an e-mail from the videographer who filmed my YouTube reading, alerting me to the fact that our seven-minute video had suddenly had over 50,000 views.

“You should  write a little blog post about that,” he suggested.  ”Because that’s a lot of views for a month and a half.”

I meant to do as he suggested,  but I never got around to it.  The number did surprise me, though.  It sure did seem like a lot of views.  ”How cool,” I thought.  And then, it occurred to me,  ”Something is going to happen.”

I got busy with other things–cleaning the pantry, sending petitions around about the Supreme Court’s most recent decision, working on a magazine article.  Meanwhile,  my in-box was filling up with requests from other writing mothers, asking if they could post the video on their sites.

“Sure,” I typed back.  ”I’d be honored.”   And I am.  There is nothing better, as a writer, than hearing that words you’ve written have resonated with someone else.

The other day, I was browsing through the new releases at our local bookstore.  ”Do you have time to sign some books?” the sales clerk asked.  ”Sure,” I answered, rummaging in my purse for a pen.  ”How’s it doing?” She told me that, to her surprise, they’d had to reorder seven times.  Good news for any author, of course. And I found myself thinking again, “Something is going to happen.”

It’s Saturday afternoon now, and I’m just back, tired and well exercised and hungry, from a long snowshoe hike with a friend and our dogs.  The ingredients for the dinner I’m about to make are sitting out next to the sink–carrots, spinach, rice. In an hour or so my husband will come home, a friend will arrive, and we’ll eat dinner in the kitchen and watch a Netflix movie on TV.  Nothing too exciting, and yet I’m glad to be here, settling in for a quiet night at home.

But, before I get started chopping vegetables,  I wanted to sit down here for a minute, check my email, and write something on my website.  I had something else in mind to say, actually.   But I’ve just taken a look at my YouTube link. And then, just to be sure, I double-clicked and checked it again.

104, 443 views.

I don’t think a hundred thousand YouTube hits qualifies as viral.  Certainly it’s nowhere near in the league of such online sensations as Susan Boyle, David After the Dentist, and World’s Fastest Drinker.  But it does mean that a whole lof of people are taking time out of their own busy days to watch a film about living in the moment and loving our kids as they are.  The only way that number jumped from 50,000 to 100,000 in four short days is because people have been inspired to share the film with their friends.  Now, it seems that they are also buying books, and sharing those, too.

The numbers are not huge, and no one’s under any illusion that “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” is going to be the next “Eat, Pray, Love.” But I have to admit it to you:  What’s going on here is lovely, and deeply gratifying.  And who knows?  Maybe the trend will continue.  I still do have that feeling: something is going to happen.

Oh, and p.s.  If you’re reading this and haven’t seen the video, or if you wish to forward it, here’s the direct link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olSyCLJU3O0

 

Web of Friends

I thought I “got” the internet.  Need a movie time? Google the theatre.  Want a book? One-click service at amazon.  Can’t get the New York Times delivered in rural New Hampshire? Read it on-line. Need to get a message out to the members of your book club?  Send a group e-mail.  Wondering what your college sophomore son is up to tonight?  Check his status on Facebook.

All of that still seems pretty amazing to me.  My kids can’t believe it when I tell them that, in my first job out of college, I typed letters on an electric typewriter, meticulously hand-correcting my five carbon copies every time I made a mistake.  Or that, back in “my day,” doing research meant going to the library, making plans with a friend required a phone call, and reading a piece you missed in yesterday’s newspaper meant rummaging through the household trash till you found it.

Like most parents of a certain age, I’ve worried about the influence of all this new technology on my children’s social and emotional development.  I read the Atlantic Magazine article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and wondered if I still had the intellectual bandwidth to read a 600-page book cover to cover, and whether my kids could indulge in their habitual web-surfing while also developing the kind of mental fortitude necessary to enjoy George Eliot or Tolstoy without skimming.  On beautiful summer days, I’d fret that they seemed more engaged in the virtual world than the real one.  And I observed, as they came of age and the number of family laptops increased by two, that they seemed to be spending more time staring at computer screens, less time just hanging out and “interfacing” with one another.

In ways large and small, most of us have sensed that our lives, our families, our relationships, are continually being transformed and shaped by the ways we use the technology at our fingertips.  I’ve watched it happen in my own house, as my sons each seemed to intuit how to do just about anything on the computer–play games, find access to arcane information, compose music, post videos, create art, and tend virtual gardens and pets.  At the same time, I was pretty sure that the on-line world held no siren call for me.  After all, I define myself as a here-and-now kind of gal, more comfortable in the kitchen than at a keyboard, preferring walks in the woods to web hopping.

And then, last fall, I published a book.  Ten years ago, when my first book came out, I went to five states on a book tour, came home, and created a fat file folder of reviews as they arrived from various small daily papers across the country.  I flew to Washington and did an interview with the Post.  A week later, Oprah called.  That was exciting; and the book pretty much sold itself–here, and in nine other countries as well. Simple.

This time, I knew things would be different.  For one thing, most of those daily papers are gone or, if they do still survive, they certainly no longer have book critics on staff.   “You need to market it yourself,” a few savvy writer friends advised in the months before pub date. “And the way to do that is to get on-line, create a presence there, reach out to your readers.”

So I asked my son Henry to help me create a website and a Facebook fan page.  And I promised myself that, once a week at least, I would make myself sit down, write something, and post it on my site.

I thought I was just doing my job as a mid-list author in this new down-sized age, getting the word out and then cultivating an audience, so that my publisher would perhaps be willing to invest in me again.  But I found that the discipline of writing a blog, even one or two short pieces a week, has kept me in closer touch not just with my readers, but with myself.  Like prayer, or yoga, or meditation, writing, too, is a practice.  I sit down, turn on the computer, and say hello to the watching, reflecting part of me.  And then I listen, and write down what that quiet inner voice has to say.

And little did I know, as I began this solitary on-line enterprise,  that I was in fact joining a remarkable community.  In the past few months, I’ve received well over a hundred letters through this website –thoughtful, introspective, generous letters, from both men and women who, having read my story, feel inspired to write and tell me a bit of their own.  Readers of my blog have welcomed me into this new world by sending me links to theirs — a vast variety of people who take the time to capture, transform, and freely share glimpses of their everyday lives.

That’s why I love a morning like this one, when the quiet of snow, and a bit of white space on my calendar, allows time for checking in on various dear friends I’ve never met, but whose lives have crossed paths, online, with mine. Thanks to these occasional blog visits, I’ve poured over Christmas photos, mourned the death of a beloved dog, cheered for teenagers accepted to college, laughed at a friend’s blow-by-blow account of a day from hell, been introduced to poets I’ve never heard of, and bought books recommended by kindred spirits whose voices and tastes I’ve come to trust.

Alas, I doubt there will ever be enough time in my own ordinary days to meet deadlines, make dinner, get the laundry done, write to my mom, talk to the kids, see a movie with my husband. . .AND read about all the doings in all of my friends’ lives as well. And yet, I do love knowing that they are out there, each one of them doing their best to live fully and thoughtfully, nurturing and loving and writing, sharing glimpses of their days and their innermost selves with anyone who has a moment to stop by.

Last night, I did an on-line chat in The Writer’s Chatroom and had occasion to mention one of my favorite blogs, justonefoot.com, written by one of my new on-line pen-pals, a mother of four who writes about family life and navigating the world on one leg, since hers was amputated six years ago.  Little did I know that she was “in” the room.  (That’s the beauty of attending a party at which you don’t actually see the guests–most of whom are probably in their pajamas!)

“I do feel that no one reads my blog most days,” Judy wrote in an e-mail afterwards, “but I generally do it for ‘me’ anyway, so if even one person sees it and smiles, that’s gravy.”

I think that, when it comes right down to it, most of us do write for ourselves, not for an audience.  We write to remind ourselves of what’s important in our lives, to move beyond our petty cares and concerns and to get in touch with our true essence, our souls, the people we are in the process of becoming.  And then, in gestures of faith and solidarity, we offer our gift, the gift of ourselves, to the world.

So, I’ll admit it here: I do feel transformed by the internet, enlarged and connected and inspired, and deeply grateful for the support and friendship that comes my way each day through the words of so many generous people, all of them engaged, each in their own ways, in the humble work of honoring the precious moment that is now.

 

 

Loss, and love

One after the other, my aunt’s husband of fifty-nine years and her three grown children spoke — about what they remembered, what they would miss.  It was bitterly cold in Florida on Saturday, all rain and bluster. My dad had gone to the house early, to staple plastic sheeting around the screened lanai and install a rented space heater to keep the guests warm.  ”I want music,” my aunt had told my mother some months ago, and so my mom found a singer, and we had “Amazing Grace.”  Also at my aunt’s request, the portrait she had painted of her beloved dog Mokie hung in a place of honor on the kitchen wall.  There was a reading from the Bible, the 23rd psalm; she had wanted that, too.

Otherwise, for the first time in their lives, her family was on its own.  Together, without the guiding hand of the one who really ought to have been right there calling the shots, my mom and my uncle and cousins created a service that felt fitting and true. This is what we do, when the loved ones in our life pass on. We attend to details, send cards and flowers, change plans, book plane tickets. We cook and rent chairs and search for old photos and call the caterer.  We get busy, and then we gather ourselves together and try to make some sense of it all. My mother had baked a cheesecake, found a poem, arranged for a meal, asked my son Henry to compile two cds worth of music.  And when it was her turn, she stood up in the living room and tried to put into words how it felt to lose the last person on the planet whom she’d known and loved all her life, her big sister.

My uncle wrote a eulogy, and then somehow found the strength to read it. He recalled the day he saw my aunt for the first time, in the lunch line at the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 1948.  She was blonde, movie-star beautiful, voted Kampus Kitten that freshman year.  ”I’m going to marry that girl,” my uncle told his buddy. He did, and until the day she died, he marveled at the way her smile still lit up the room. “She was the nicest person I ever knew,” he said at the end, his eyes full of tears, and then he said it again, to make sure we all knew how important that was to him.

“My mom was always there, every time I woke up after one of my surgeries,” recalled my cousin Carol, who lost a leg to cancer at age eleven and has endured countless surgeries in the forty-plus years since.  ”Sitting by my bed, just waiting with me.”

My cousin Sue described a hot summer day, a ride on the swan boats in the Public Garden in Boston with her two young sons and her mom.  Nothing special really, except that those boys are grown now and launched on lives of their own. But years ago they had experienced a moment together, and they had each cherished the memory ever since.  Behind Sue, on the bookshelf, stood a blurry photograph–two sweaty little boys on a boat, a weary young mother, a grandmother whose face was alight with joy.  ”Every spring, when the swan boats return,” Sue promised us, and herself, “I’m going to make sure to go again, and to remember the happiness of that day.”

“We had an ongoing, private conversation,” my cousin Don revealed, when it was his turn. “My mom and I could talk about anything, but we shared a curiosity about spiritual things, mysteries, the afterlife. . . We always wondered about what would come next.  I have a feeling my mom knows the answer now.”

My aunt was an artist, and her watercolors fill the walls of her modest home. Months ago, she affixed small stickers to the frames, ensuring that each child and grandchild would receive their rightful inheritances.  She had brought her two girls together (“We were always ‘the girls,’ Sue pointed out, “no matter how old we got.”), and insisted that they divvy up her jewelry–the nearly sixty years worth of anniversary gifts, the Christmas pins bestowed by a steady stream of long-ago fifth-grade students, the cache of tiny plastic pickle pins, the final remains of my grandfather’s career as a traveling salesman for Heinz.

But I have been thinking, these last two days, of my aunt’s real legacy. Of what it is that any of us leave behind us when we go.  The “stuff” doesn’t really mean much.  Most us yearn for less of it in our homes, in our lives.  What counts, in the end, is love.  My uncle’s recollections to the contrary, my aunt was not a perfect wife and mother.  Their family life wasn’t perfect either. Whose is?  Yet I found deep consolation in the course of that cold, rainy hour, as my Aunt Gloria’s husband and children offered their memories. What had endured for them, what they shared with the rest of us, was the knowledge that they had been loved — loved unconditionally and completely — for who they are.

I have been worried about a son this week.  Giving in to fear, I lost my way, wrote an email I regretted almost instantly, spun hurt and anger when I should have been re-stitching a sturdy seam of love.  We are working to set things right, my son and I, to reweave what has been torn between us.  I feel some urgency about that, feel committed to speaking with more care in the future, to having more faith that things are already as they are meant to be. Death is, among other things, a pretty stark reminder to the living of what really matters in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not the book written, the picture painted, the money earned, saved, or spent. It’s certainly not being right, or convincing another to see your point of view.  And so, I realized this morning that I owed my son an apology. “I’m sorry” doesn’t fix a problem, but it does bring love back into the heart and center of things.  This is, I think, the only legacy worth leaving: the knowledge that no matter how many other things we’ve done or not done along the way, we have loved our loved ones with all our hearts, as best we can, from one moment to the next.

 

 

 

Good-byes

The house is so quiet.  I had planned to spend the afternoon putting Christmas decorations away, vacuuming the dog hair and grit from the floor, stripping sheets off the kids’ beds, the guest-room bed, the pull-out couch.  (We had a full house here last night.)  But I know that when I get up from my spot at the kichen table and begin all those tasks, it will mean that the holiday we’ve had together really is over.  When I went to bed last night, around 11:30, Henry and a couple of high school classmates were sprawled on the couch with afghans, watching old episodes of The West Wing. Jack was upstairs chatting on the phone with a friend.  My eighteen-year-old niece Caitlin, who’s been staying with us for a week, was putting the finishing touches on her college applications.  The fire we’d nursed all afternoon was burning to embers in the fireplace, the dishwasher was running its second load, a pile of sodden boots sat in a widening puddle by the back door, an unfinished game of Bananagrams lay abandoned on the floor, laptops and iPods were scattered about the kitchen.  The place looked lived in, definitely.

Early this morning we said good-bye to Henry’s best friend, I took Henry and  Caitlin to the airport, and Jack left as well, to drive back to school with his dad. I am behind in everything, truth be told, with two weeks worth of unaswered e-mails on my computer, a deadline to meet, an empty refrigerator.  It’s been days since I exercised, or picked up a book, or wrote so much as a word. There’s plenty to do.  And yet, alone for the first time in weeks, I am a bit unsettled by the silence, almost bereft, already missing everybody.

One thing I’ve found this year is that the partings don’t get easier, no matter how many times my sons come home and go away again. But I’ve also learned how important it is to appreciate all the moments of their being here, even when those moments are not exactly the blissful “family time” I always envision.  The house gets messy, best laid plans go awry, the days fly by way too fast, and suddenly it’s time to haul out the suitcases again, grab the last load from the dryer, say good-bye.

I guess that there’s just never going to be quite enough time, no matter how long their time at home lasts –not enough time to do all the things I look forward to doing, or to launch all the conversations I hope to have, or even to relax into our old, comfortable routines.  Certainly the things my younger son and I used to fight about and wrangle over seem pretty silly now, a waste of precious opportunity.  And if Henry never does stand up straight, or chew with his mouth closed, so be it.  Instead of being bothered by things that used to drive me crazy, I’m aware that our time together is short, my sons’ imminent departures always right around the corner.  And so I remind myself to see what’s good, and to appreciate what is.  At seventeen and twenty, my sons definitely have their own ideas about what they want to do, and when, and how.  I’m learning to accept that, too.  To simply say “I love you,” rather than, “Why don’t you. . .”

We didn’t read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” this year, or sing carols, or walk the New Year’s labyrinth at Town Hall.  We never made it to see “Avatar,” nor did we even manage to shoot a family photo before everyone scattered out the door–all things that were on my agenda.  But we did light candles last night, and hold hands for grace around the dinner table.  We rang in 2010 together, had lots of laughs and wonderful visits with family and friends, and bestowed sweet hugs and kisses all around this morning as we went our separate ways.

Upstairs, the scent of Old Spice still lingers.  Snow is falling.  The empty house settles into late afternoon shadow.   And I allow myself this thought:  the time we did have was perfect, just as it was. And the quiet, now — it is perfect, too.