So much goodness

I didn’t know it would be our last real conversation.  I wish now that I’d taken note last week of every word, paid more attention to the sunlight falling across the bed, the single rose in the vase, the light in her eyes, the smile she offered as I kissed her good-bye and promised I would be with her again on Tuesday.  “What are you coming down for,” she asked, as she always did when I told her what day I’d be back.  For once — after months of manufacturing haircuts and book group meetings and pedicures as “legitimate” reasons for me to make the three-hour round trip from my new town to my old one — I simply told her the truth:  “I’m coming to see you.”

I do remember this.  As I left the room, she told me to go home and have a wonderful weekend with my son Henry, on break from college for three days. “There is so, so much goodness in the world,” she said, uncharacteristically insistent.  “So much goodness.”

For the first time since I began to write in this space over a year ago, I find myself this morning, sitting in my kitchen, at a complete loss for what to say.  Early Saturday morning, my dear friend Diane passed away.  (Even typing these words gives me pause — I hear her voice in my head admonishing, “don’t say ‘after a long battle with cancer!’” Ok, dear, I won’t say that.)  I have no words yet for what I feel, for where I’ve been, for the sadness, the loss, the hole that is left in the place where just a few short days ago a vibrant heart still beat.

A month or so ago, my friend Karen Maezen Miller said, “You know, when the time comes, everything will be exactly as it is meant to be.”  I held on to those words all through these last days, and found them to be true.  Those of us who were meant to be there were there.  Food appeared on the table, friends from near and far appeared at Diane’s bedside, the new puppy peed on the floor, the teenagers came and went, poems were read aloud, wine was poured, tears were shed, fires were lit, sheets were changed and dishes were washed.  There was laughter, even in the midst of great sadness.  Above all, there was love–unconditional, infinite, all powerful.

Death and life, one inextricable from the other.  What I know for sure now is that a heart can accommodate both, a home can accommodate both, a family can accommodate both.  Last week, with love and instinct to guide us, Diane’s family and dear friends transformed an upstairs bedroom into a sacred space. And each of us who were blessed to abide there for a while soon found our own fears transformed as well. We may not know what to expect from death, or whether we are truly up to the task we’ve taken on when we promise to stay near.  And then, having made clear our intention to be present come what may, we find that even in our most challenging transitions, we do know what to do.  Our hearts tell us how to make love visible. Our hands know, without being taught, how to soothe a brow, change a sick bed, tend a body.  Dying is hard physical work.  And, despite the most attentive ministrations, life’s final stages are not always beautiful.  To be human, it seems, is to suffer and to pray for an end to suffering. And then, in life’s final moments, there is peace, and grace, and even, for one brief instant, a glimpse of the great mystery beyond this earthly realm.

Returning from this vigil, taking up residence in my own house again, I’m not quite sure what to do with this new knowledge.  I do know, beyond a doubt, that Diane was right:  There is so much goodness in the world, so much goodness even in the most wrenching circumstances.  But at the moment I’m tired, and sad, and raw.  A bit in awe, still, of what I’ve seen and lived and learned over the course of this last week.  It feels tender yet, this place of grief.  So I find my way back into the mundane one step at a time.  I am grateful to my own dear husband, for drawing me a hot bath, putting me to bed, folding the laundry and loving me back into our life together.   I bring Tylenol to Jack, who is home from school with a cold.  I make corn chowder, search the garden for a few last blossoms, and wonder again and again, “what now?”




Everyone once, once only

“Everyone once, once only.  Just once and no more. And we also once.  Never again.  But this having been once, although only once, to have been of the earth, seems irrevocable.”  — Rilke,   Duino Elegies


These words, the epigraph to Mary Oliver’s new collection of poems, pierce my heart.  I have read them over and over again, have felt the depth and heaviness and truth of that italicized word, once.  For so it is, every moment of every day, once and only once.

Two days ago, I stood in my garden, taking stock after a week away.  My neighbor Debbie had protected all of my fragile plants from the first two nights of killing frost, spreading black plastic in the entry way, carrying in the heavy pots of geraniums, petunias, chrysanthemums and ornamental kale, one by one.  She had spread bed sheets across my rampant nasturtiums, and returned in the early morning, before sunrise, to spray a fine mist of water over everything, laboring to eke out just a few more days of life and color.  Standing there, on the most perfect fall day of all, I wanted to grow roots myself, to become still enough to see and absorb everything before me — the mountains ablaze with color, the crystalline sky, the grass, emerald green again after a long, dry summer, the yellow leaves drifting slowly to earth from the maple by the stone wall, the flowers.  Oh, the flowers, these final, brilliant blooms of the season.  For weeks I’ve been cutting things back, getting rid of the spent sunflowers, cone flowers, rudibeckia.  And meanwhile, the cosmos and nasturtiums have thrived, a riot of glorious, mismatched late season finery — oranges and pinks, side by side, crazy and beautiful.

I wanted to give myself a moment there, a moment in which to simply appreciate the transient beauty and bounty of the day, and then I intended to get right back to the work at hand — the pot of soup on the stove, the load of laundry to fold, the overnight bag to pack so I could head out the door again.  For a self-proclaimed homebody, I haven’t been home much lately.

Steve and I had just returned from a long weekend in Minnesota, where our son Henry was the musical director for the St. Olaf theater department’s fall musical.  Watching him do, at last, the very work he has long aspired to was quite a parenting high.  All those hours of “conducting” with a drum stick behind a closed bedroom door, all  those years of music lessons, the high school productions, the accompanist jobs, were finally paying off, coalescing into the realization of a dream.  We wouldn’t have missed it for anything.  And yet, all mixed up with my feelings of pride and excitement for him was the bittersweet realization that we were visitors in his life out there, the life he lives on his own, far away from us.  We dropped in for a while, met his friends and had a meal, and then we said our good-byes right on the stage, as the actors began to strike the set around us after the final performance of the show.

The next morning, before we headed to the airport, I took a run through a nearby park and found myself alone in an empty playground.  Looking at the swings, the slide, the jungle gym, I was overcome with memories of my own boys, age four and seven or so — back when swings and monkey bars offered hours of thrills, back when an ordinary day might include a trip to the park, a snack on the grass, singing along to Raffi on the ride home, a nap, hour upon hour of togetherness.  That life I loved so much, that time of close, intense mothering, is so far in the past now that the wave of nostalgia that washed over me, the sudden lump in my throat, caught me off guard.  Once, and only once.

Back at home again, standing in my own yard and wishing that I could somehow seize every detail of a gorgeous autumn morning, I felt the same shadow across my heart, couldn’t help mourning the loss of all that beauty even as I tried in vain to somehow reach out and hold onto it for a little while longer.

“I’ve missed the fall,” I lamented to myself, thinking back over these last few too-busy weeks, the travel and book store readings and commitments.  This, I know by now, is my grasping mind at work, the part of me that is never quite satisfied with the present because I am so busy regretting what’s over (the entire month of September–gone!) or anticipating what’s to come (rain in the forecast!  no more warm, golden days like this one!).

So there I was, standing in the midst of autumn glory, wringing my hands, because I hadn’t had enough of it, and because it wouldn’t last.  Sometimes I have to wonder: will I ever get it?  Will what is ever be enough?  “This isn’t the dress rehearsal,” as my husband likes to remind our son Jack, “this is your life.”  He’s nearly 18; we want him to know that every choice he makes has a consequence, that what he does defines who he is.

The same is true, I realize, of my thoughts.  What I think creates the reality I live.  I can stand in a deserted playground and feel the loss of my sons’ childhoods, or I can choose instead to celebrate who they have become. I can wish for more flowers, more warm days, more free time, or I can shift perspective, and accept the gift of the present moment — exquisite, fleeting, already vanished.

We die a little every day.  With every change, with every loss, with every turn of season or cloud passing before the sun we lose what was and are asked to respond to what is, again and again.  And yet, how easily we overlook the wonder of life, in our rush to attend to its details or in our dissatisfaction with the way things are. Seeing my grown son move ever further into adult life, feeling another season slip away, feeling the pressure of a day with too much crammed into it, being with a friend in pain, I struggle against what is, when I could choose instead to see how precious it is simply to be alive. Some day, some how, I hope I can finally learn to be at peace with the fragility of it all, to accept the truth that in every moment we are, all of us, dying to something.

And so, like a traveler who keeps getting off course and must stop in her tracks and seek out a better route, I find myself constantly rushing headlong down the path of sadness these days, only to realize that I’m going the wrong way.  Seems as if my life is full of stops and starts, as I pull myself together, get turned around, and choose another direction.  Gratitude is always a good way to go.  How grateful I am to Debbie, for saving all the flowers for me, until I could get home and enjoy them for one last morning.  I can be grateful for an autumn day unlike any other, before or since.  Grateful for bees in the sunshine and wild colors in the garden, for parents who are healthy, children who have turned into men, a husband who has stood steady through it all, friends who give so much and who allow me to give of myself in return.  I can even be grateful, in this very moment, for gusting winds and the cold rain that has poured down relentlessly all through the night and into this afternoon, pummeling the garden, shredding the last of the flowers, and whipping most of the leaves right off the trees.

It has been a difficult, tumultuous fall, with much change and sadness in my life and the lives of those most dear to me. Suffering can seem so random, so pointless — and yet here it is, inevitable.  What can we do but meet it however we are able, knowing that while life itself is a gift, each day also offers us a series of little deaths. These losses and transitions, these heartaches, they too are simply part and parcel of our daily turn upon this earth, reminders of what it is to be human.  Nothing lasts.  And, as we practice dying, over and over, we also learn what it is to be fully alive.  Once, and only once.

As I type these words, the sky grows even darker, the fog settles over the mountains, the garden lays drenched and flattened.  In the vase on the table where I write is a bouquet of bright, jewel-toned nasturtiums, picked in the dark last night, just before the storm began.  They will be the last ones this year.  A long-ago birthday gift from my friend Diane, the vase holds not only flowers, but memories, too, of a deep and abiding friendship; I keep it full, full of life and beauty, in honor of a friend who has taught me much about how to live well and whose company I cherish.  Finding the good in each day, she reminds me by her own example that although we can’t resist or refuse the natural course of change, we can choose to pass through it gracefully.

And so, I say Rilke’s words again, to remind myself  who I aspire to be and how I want to live: with awareness, heart open, grateful for every juicy bit of joy that can be squeezed out of the life I have. “Everyone once, once only.  Just once and no more.”

Paperback reflections, thank you, and a free book. . .

I tried, a year ago when my book was published, to see what was ahead.  And of course it soon became obvious that I could see nothing at all.

I was not one of those authors who pops a bottle of champagne the day the first finished copy arrives on the doorstep.  In fact, the opposite.  There had been one mildly positive review in Publishers Weekly, not much else to make the world sit up and take notice, and I was pretty certain that “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” would come and go without leaving so much as a trace.  That, I told myself, was just fine with me. After all, there had been so many times, as I was writing it, that I completely lost confidence in what I was doing.

Why should anyone need three hundred pages anyway, just to work through some rather personal and complicated feelings about mid-life and children growing up and leaving home?  And more to the point, why would anyone feel compelled to read a  memoir in which no one’s marriage falls apart, no deep dark secret is unearthed, no goal is reached, no great epiphany ever achieved?

“What are you writing about?” various friends and acquaintances would ask along the way.  I never did figure out how to answer:  “Um, myself. Getting older. The kids changing. How hard it is to live with them, and how it’s even harder to let them go. Wondering what’s next, what really matters, and, well, how to deal with it all. . .”  Somewhere in there I would trail off, embarrassed by my own lack of a plot.

Not exactly a compelling sales pitch.  Every once in a while, I would send chapters to my mom to read, and ask, “Do you think anyone will be interested in this?”  And she would read, and call me up, and say, “Well, I’m interested, but of course, I know you.”  That was honest, if not exactly encouraging.  Finally, in order to finish, I just had to sit down at my kitchen table and write.  And in order to do that, I had to pretend that no one would ever actually read it.

We were in Maine on vacation, at the very end of last summer and a few weeks before pub date, when, to my  surprise, the first couple of advance reader reviews popped up on amazon.  Apparently, bound page proofs had been sent out to a few hundred serious book bloggers and amazon faithful; now, they were beginning to weigh in.  A friend e-mailed me the news and so, heart pounding, I logged on and typed in my book title.  “Has this woman ever had an unexamined thought?” wondered my first reviewer, a woman who admitted she had lost patience with me within the first couple of chapters.  Unfortunately, I did know the answer to that one.  But the review stung.  It also confirmed my own worst fears.

I took a long, fretful swim that day, and then I took my friend Ann Patchett’s advice:  “Don’t even read the amazon reviews,” she warned.  “There’s not much you can learn from the good ones, and the bad ones will break your heart.  Just write what you are meant to write.  Trust your own voice.”

A few weeks later, when a box of finished copies arrived, I put a couple on the shelf and then got busy making dinner.  Did I want to have a little celebration? my husband asked. “No thanks,” I replied, having already decided to pretend I hadn’t just had a book published.

I had, however, promised my publisher that I would create a web site and start writing a blog; it was the least I could do to help their sales effort along, given how very well they had treated me.  I wasn’t sure that I could come up with something meaningful to say every week, but I was pretty sure that it didn’t matter much; who would ever see it anyway?  My son Henry set me up with a basic template, showed me how to slip in behind the curtain and manage my own content, and I typed up my first blog post on publication day, September 7, 2009.  Hitting “save and close” I felt a bit like a pine toppling in the forest.  If no one is there to watch, does the tree actually fall?

It wasn’t long, though, before the first letter magically appeared in my in-box, an e-mail from a mother of three in California.  “If you lived next door to me,” she wrote, “I know we would be great friends.”  A few hours later, another e-mail arrived, this one from a reader who was halfway through the book and paused to say, “I can’t believe how much we have in common.”

Since that day just over a year ago, I’ve received hundreds of letters from women (and a few men) who have read “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” and then been inspired to visit my web site and write to me.   And each of these letters has taught me something.  One by one, my readers have reminded me that, in fact, our stories do matter.  That a book can make a difference in a life.  And that we humans are strengthened and supported by the simple act of reaching out across time and distance to say:  “I hear you.  I understand.  I’ve felt that, too.”

So here I am, a year later and feeling very much a part of a larger community, all thanks to you — you who are reading these words at this moment.   Different as the details of our days may be, it is so clear to me now that we are bound together by our hopes for our loved ones and our aspirations for ourselves. What we seek, and what we find, as we write and read and share our fears and doubts and dreams with one another, is connection.   Turns out that we are all struggling along, trying to make sense of the way things are and to become the people we are meant to be.  We are all making an effort to be more present in our lives, to love our children just as they are, to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, and to be grateful for every ordinary moment of every ordinary day.

What we know, of course, is the very thing that we continually need to be reminded of: that life is fleeting and precious and beautiful, and that heaven is right here on earth if we will only pause long enough to really look, to really see:  the cup of hot coffee, the tousled head, the wagging tail, the small hand held up in greeting, the curve of a chin, the blinked back tear, the sun, the moon, the stars. . .the very life that we are blessed to live.

I began to write a blog a year ago because someone told me that I should.  But I continue to write because, as it turns out, the forest isn’t empty after all.  It is full of friends and fellow travelers, all of you who are willing to show up, to listen, and to offer compassion and insight and, perhaps, a story of your own in return.   Sitting here, at my same old kitchen table, I no longer feel alone and uncertain of my own voice but, rather, surrounded by soul mates.

Last week, the paperback copies of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” arrived in bookstores.  This time, though, when my own box arrived from the publisher, I didn’t hide them away — because the other thing I’ve learned over the last year is that a story told is at once an invitation and a gift.  When we offer up the truth of the way things really are for us, we invite others to tell their truth in return.  And when we give the gift of our trust–trust that we will be heard and not judged–we receive trust back, in spades.  Those of us who write blogs or read them figure this out pretty quickly:  the learning and caring goes both ways.  Out there in the space beyond our fingertips, out where love is energy, our words to one another are alive and potent, weaving an ethereal, indestructible safety net of compassion and concern.

Today, my dear friend Karen Maezen Miller is giving away a signed copy of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” on HER wonderful blog, Cheerio Road.  Visit her there to win yours.  And in the meantime, thank you, my friend, for being here.