Connection

“Tug on anything at all,” naturalist John Muir once wrote, “and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

I sit alone at my kitchen table on this April Monday morning, waiting for the sun to slide up and into full view. I watch a pair of chickadees trading places at the feeder. And then I type these five words — “tug on anything at all” — and wonder, is it really that simple, is everything really connected to everything else? Am I but a single strand of thread, inextricably woven into some billowing cosmic fabric?

It is hard, given the pace of our lives, the needs of our loved ones, the demands on our days, to give ourselves the time it takes to sit still and go deep. Carving out even a few moments of such quiet time means attending to our thirst for contemplation, creativity, and solitude — a thirst that is all too easy to ignore when there seem to be so many other more urgent hungers and priorities competing for our time. I’m always amazed at how long it takes me to transform my own mundane, everyday experience into some kind of narrative that makes sense enough for other eyes to read. And not a week goes by that I don’t question the validity of what I do. Is this particular reflection worth sharing with anyone? Why bother? And, really, who cares?

More often than not, when the choice comes down to writing or attending to some necessary, concrete task on my list, I choose to do what seems truly “productive”: pay the bill, vacuum the floor, clean the fridge, check up on a sick friend. But I am learning to heed the quixotic call of quiet. Without much of an agenda or plan (oh, I’d much rather have a plan!), I allow my fingers to begin typing, just to see what I have to say.

Writing, staring out the window, writing some more, as the hours roll by and the dishes sit on the counter and the weeds multiply in the garden. Writing because it is the best, the only, way I know to investigate myself, to figure out what I think and how I feel and what matters right now. Writing because I do need to connect with some inner “me” and, even more, because I also need to reach out a hand and tug at something ineffable, something “out there” beyond my own orbit of thoughts and feelings and perceptions. Writing in order to remember that I’m part of something mysterious and vast and eternal. Writing to remind myself that, yes, I am connected to everything else in the universe.

You and I may not have met face to face, we might not even recognize one another on the street. And yet, I’m convinced that in certain ways that truly matter, we know one another. Our lives are indeed intertwined, our journeys shared, thanks in part to the power of the written word and the wonders of our wired age. Somewhere out there, you sit before your own screen — at a desk in a crowded office, perhaps; or on the sofa while a baby naps nearby; or in an attic room above the fray of family life; or hunched over a table in a coffee shop, waiting till your latte is cool enough to drink; or propped up on bed pillows for a stolen moment before sleep — and you read a few paragraphs on a blog written by a stranger who somehow feels like a friend. You are reminded now, as I am, that we’re all in this together, come what may. And that, much as the details of our everyday lives may differ, when it comes right down to what resides in our hearts, we have so much more in common than not. “We read,” to paraphrase, C. S. Lewis, “to know that we are not alone.” I think I write for exactly the same reason.

This week over a hundred of you answered the question “How do you simplify your life?” Your responses are creative, surprising, moving, and immensely practical. Check out the comments section for inspiration.

Here, just a sampling:

*Make simpler meals
*Adopt a less-is-more attitude
*Listen more
*Say “no” to the things that don’t nourish us
* Say “yes” to opportunities for togetherness
*Walk more and drive less
*Pick your battles and don’t sweat the small stuff
*Mark off calendar time just for family togetherness
*Turn off the TV
*Get rid of smart phones
*Read out loud
*Let the dishes wait
*De-clutter daily
*Savor ordinary moments
*Limit activities to one per child
*Ease up on expectations

I will notify the two winners of the book give-away tomorrow. In the meantime, thank you all for your heartfelt notes, for sharing your lives with me, and for a wealth of wonderful suggestions and insights. As Kelly wrote: “My lesson learned is to embrace the moment and let the little voice inside you guide you. Trust that you really have the answers.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Mother’s Day is May 8. Need a gift for a special mom in your life? I am signing Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of an Ordinary Day for Mother’s Day. Click here to order your personalized, gift-wrapped copies.

Simplicity Parenting and Books to Give Away

I can’t recall how many times a reader has written to say,
“I wish I’d found your books years ago, when my children were young.”

I had that same feeling myself, reading Kim John Payne’s very wise and beautiful book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids.

So many of the books I did read when my own sons were small left me feeling confused and inadequate. What I wanted was a calm friend on the page, someone who would reassure me that I was fully capable of giving my children what they needed. Someone who would also remind me that, in fact, my two small children didn’t actually need very much.

In a culture of competition, noise, distraction, and excess, it is hard to tune in to a place of inner knowing. And it’s harder still for me to hear and to trust my own inner voice — especially when that voice is advocating for such elusive qualities as emptiness, silence, stillness, intimacy, simplicity, and faith.

I have discovered a spiritual friend, and a mentor for both motherhood and for life itself, in Kim Payne. Even now, reading his book as the parent of two young adults, I find myself underlining passages, realizing that our need for quiet time and simple pleasures does not end with childhood. Again and again, I have to be reminded to stop, to rest, to realign my life with the values I hold most dear.
Relationships — whether with a toddler or an eighteen-year-old — are not sustained on the fly. In fact, they are best nurtured in those very moments when not much else is happening. Whenever I turn my attention away from the world’s distractions (and there seem to be more of them then ever!), and focus instead on the beautiful souls of my own loved ones, I am rewarded.

Anxiety usually means I’m reacting rather than listening, doing rather than being, fixing rather than trusting. Each time I pause to be quiet, to create space, to slow down, I release my grip on a moment that can’t be held anyway. I stop struggling. I reconnect with what I know. Awareness deepens. Gratitude for what is edges out fear of what may be.

Kim Payne reminds me who I am and how I want to live. He writes:

Imagine your home. . .

* as a place where time moves a little slower.
*becoming less cluttered and more visually relaxing.
*with space, and time, for childhood — and with time for one another every day.
*as a place where play and exploration are allowed and honored.
*having more ease as you begin to limit distractions and say no to the stress of too much, too fast, too soon.
*as a sense of calm and security take hold.
*becoming a place where those we love know it, by virtue of our attention, protection, and appreciation.

This is where I want to live. Don’t we all?

As Mother’s Day approaches, I am delighted to give away two special gift packages, each containing a copy of Kim Payne’s Simplicity Parenting and a signed copy of my book Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.

TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF TWO SETS OF 2 BOOKS EACH, just leave a comment here. If you’ve found a way to simplify your life, I’d love to hear about it — and my guess is that many others would be grateful, too. But of course you may simply say, “Count me in!”

Entries close at midnight Monday, April 25, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.

WANT THE BOOKS NOW?

• Buy “Simplicity Parenting” now
• Buy “Mitten Strings for God” now

P.S. Many of you have asked about ordering signed copies of The Gift of an Ordinary Day as Mother’s Day gifts. I would be honored to sign and personalize books for all the special moms in your life. And, of course, Mitten Strings for God makes a wonderful gift for a new mother or a mom with young children. Your books will be signed, gift wrapped, and mailed from my trusty local bookstore. Just click here: Order Signed Copies

Perfect

I began writing my first book, “Mitten Strings for God,” the year Henry and Jack were five and eight. My husband and I were right in the thick of it, parenting two small children. We were busy, exhausted, finding our way, certain that everyone else must be better at this than we were. I remember struggling to accommodate and care for our two boys — so very different from each of us and, miraculously, complete polar opposites of one another as well — and wishing these two single-edition models had arrived with instruction manuals of some sort, so we wouldn’t have to flail about so day after day, trying to figure out what they each needed and how best to give it to them.

Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t been so afraid. I wish I’d trusted myself more. I wish I’d believed that I already had what it takes to be a good mother, rather than constantly berating myself for not being smart enough, or patient enough, or wise enough, or loving enough. I wish I’d had more faith in my kids. Faith that they could survive their bumpy, perilous journeys on the road to young adulthood and be stronger for the bruises endured along the way. Faith that, no matter how crazy or irrational or clingy or tearful or restless or angry or oversensitive or afraid they seemed at two or five or eight, they would eventually get it all sorted out and grow up and be fine. I wish I had laughed with them more and worried about them less. I wish I’d allowed myself to sleep more deeply during those years, rather than staring at the ceiling so many nights and promising myself that I would do better tomorrow. I wish I’d known, really known then, the way I think I know now, that every moment is precious, that life is short, and that it’s all good, even when it’s not.

Writing was a way for me to remind myself, day after day, what really mattered. In order to write, I had to gaze at my children with clear eyes; when I did, I was blinded by their radiance. In order to write, I had to become utterly quiet and still; when I did, I was amazed by the beauty that was my life. In order to write, I had to look into the truth of things as they actually were. When I did, my heart cracked wide open. What I saw, again and again, was the breathtaking miracle of our existence together: two children held in the sturdy embrace of two parents who loved them with a depth and a passion that I never did find adequate words to express.

A couple of months ago, when the boys were both home for a weekend, we watched some old home movies of the two of them cutting up in the back yard, playing catch, impersonating their favorite umpires, goofing off and being funny and adorable and heart-wrenchingly young. There was footage of Jack impishly plucking herbs from the garden in the back yard and eating them straight out of his hand. A serious young Henry at the piano, playing his very first songs. I put my arm around Jack as the video screen went blank and jokingly said something like, “You see, you guys did have a good childhood.”

“Mom,” he said back, with rare seriousness, “we had a perfect childhood.”

And that is what I am thinking about now, as I consider a batch of fresh challenges, the challenges that come with the territory of being eighteen and twenty-one. Or, perhaps I should say, with the territory of being the parents of an eighteen and a twenty-one year old. Maybe it is all perfect just as it is, even if perfection isn’t easy to see in this moment, from an inch or two away. Maybe, years from now, we will look back on this early spring of 2011 and recall not the worries about the lack of summer jobs, the hazy plans, the shortage of cars and money, but rather, perfection. The sweetness that is the essence of life, even when it’s not as simple and straightforward as we might wish.

My brother and his wife have had a tough winter themselves, with a two-year-old who’s just had tubes put in her ears after months of infections and courses of ineffectual antibiotics, and a four-year-old who, in his first months of nursery school, has caught every bug that’s come down the pike. Ask them to describe what life has been like in their house of late and “perfection” is not a word they’d be likely to use.

And yet, that’s the word that occurred to me, when they sent along this photo of Angelique and Gabriel. Just one wild and crazy moment in the midst of yet another ordinary day. Just life as it is, captured, even as it turns into something else. Perfection.

Never a Dull Moment

Unfortunately, there is still snow on the ground, even though it’s April. Fortunately, a robin convention is underway in my front yard and there are crocuses blooming alongside the stone wall.

Unfortunately, I thought I’d been left off the guest list to a dear friend’s surprise birthday party. Fortunately, it turned out that the hostess had an old email address and was wondering why she hadn’t heard from me — just as I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from her.

Unfortunately, I’d already made plans for that evening but, fortunately, I was able to stop by the party long enough to be part of the surprise, have a glass of champagne, and wish my friend a happy 50th.

Unfortunately, my son Jack and I had a horrible conversation on Friday that kept me awake, tossing and turning all night. Fortunately, he called the next day to set things right, and we both felt much, much better.

Unfortunately, a good friend is facing a frightening biopsy this week. Fortunately, he sat at our dinner table on Saturday night and was reminded how much love and support surround him as he takes the first step on this journey into the unknown.

Unfortunately, none of my son Henry’s many applications have resulted in a summer internship or job offer. Fortunately, he decided yesterday to take a leap and attend a meditation retreat for pianists — a big step outside the box that may take him right where he needs to go.

Unfortunately, the huge brush pile my husband and I were burning yesterday sent a wild spark into the field. Fortunately, friends and neighbors came quickly to our aid and together we were able to stamp out the fire before damage was done.

Unfortunately, I was so sore and exhausted after a long day of hauling brush and tending raging fires that I could barely move my tired body off the couch last night. Fortunately, Steve made his own dinner and emptied the dishwasher and said, “Let’s go to bed early.”

Friends keep asking me: “What is it like, coming back to the ‘real’ world, after a whole month away?” So far, I have no good answer to the question. Life is what it is, what it’s always been. I am who I am, the very same person I was before I had the lovely opportunity to practice yoga and meditation for eight hours a day. And yet, there is something going on here that feels a little bit different.

I think of a book that our family adored when Henry and Jack were small, a book by Remy Charlip called Fortunately, that we read aloud over and over again. “Fortunately,” it begins, “Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.”

The charm and appeal of this wonderful picture book is the speed with which Ned’s luck turns from good to bad to good again. He’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down — until, of course, we realize right along with him that there’s no point at all in judging any of the crazy things that happen to him as either “good” or “bad.” They just are, and, at the end of the day, at the end of the book, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And that, I think, is one thing I learned in my time away. I can continue to go through life keeping a tally sheet of the “good” stuff and the “bad” stuff, or I can let go of that kind of judging and comparing all together. As I practice simply being present, living in the moment that is right now, I come into a closer relationship with an inner self that is not at the mercy of every thought or fear or perception that passes through my busy mind, but that somehow stands apart, watching, abiding, and holding faith that everything will turn out fine in the end.

My “witness consciousness” is still a toddler, which is to say that this non-judging, non-reacting self is not terribly reliable yet. (That awful phone conversation did send me into a tailspin of worry and frustration, after all.)

Yet, I am growing fond of this quiet, less reactive part of me. I want to know her better, to encourage her presence. Sitting on my yoga mat, allowing my own breath to be a doorway into the moment, I realize how good it feels to place my trust in the rightness of things as they are. “The seed of suffering in you may be strong,” writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”

What a simple, radical idea: allowing myself to be happy. I don’t have to put happiness off, until some future day when everything is just as I want it to be. In fact, I can be happy right now, just by embracing what is — the whole messy, imperfect ball of wax. Instead of being buffetted about by a swirl of emotions, self-doubts, or fears, I can watch life unfold with an appreciative eye and a grateful heart.

The other day I had tea with my friend Pam. It was the first of April, and we were watching it snow — hard. “Never a dull moment,” she said, smiling. So true. So obvious. So profound. As soon as I stop judging, complaining, comparing then I am free to become a full participant in the great swirl of energy that is life itself, with all its close calls and wacky surprises and unexpected twists and turns. Unfortunately, things never really go as planned. Fortunately, they have a way of working themselves out. Never a dull moment. I wouldn’t have it any other way.