The treasure of an ordinary day

It was the softest of mornings, the quietest of sunrises, the loveliest day to step out into. I cherish these September days — the silky air, the damp, sweet scent of summer succumbing to fall. I walked across the wet grass, sat on a rock, and watched the mists drift across the valley, the sky brighten, a single bird soaring high, silhouetted against the sky. Never do I appreciate the beauty of home more than on a day when I have to leave it.

I type these words in an airport terminal, waiting for my delayed flight to Atlanta, where I’m giving a talk tomorrow on “the treasure of an ordinary day.” These invitations still catch me off guard; the idea that someone would think of me as a public speaker, as a person with enough wisdom to impart that my appearance is worth organizing an event around. But I’m learning to trust the people who ask, to gather some thoughts, and to go where I’m wanted.

Of course, I have nothing to offer those who come to hear me speak that every one of us doesn’t know already. The themes are plain and simple: That life is precious. That we already have everything we need. That we can choose to be grateful. To see what’s right in front of us. To be in the present moment. To slow down, rather than racing so fast through our own lives that we miss them.

I also know how hard it is to remember what we already know. If you’re like me, you probably have to remind yourself, over and over again: to notice where you are, to accept what is, to love that. Sitting still helps. Coming to a stop and allowing my busy, wild mind to be at rest is the only way I’ve found to be truly mindful. It’s why, after years of not meditating, I finally do. Walking helps, too. It’s why, although I love to run, I also spend hours each week walking alone on the empty roads near my house, allowing my thoughts to drift and noticing everything there is to notice.

Last week, I spent a few days alone at a friend’s tiny, secluded cabin. There was no internet, no opportunity to toggle back and forth, as I tend to do at home, from e-mail to a friend’s latest blog post to my own stop-and-go writing to the most popular stories in the New York Times. With nothing to do but sit and write, I sat and wrote. With no company to keep but my own, I got back in touch with a deeper, quieter part of myself. With no to-do list to whittle away at or schedule to keep, I felt the expansiveness of an hour, an afternoon, a day. Time became generous.

I tried to carry some of that spaciousness home with me. To remember my own capacity for quiet, focused attention, whether I’m alone in a cabin or standing at a podium in front of a room full of strangers. I can react to events, get carried away by stress, allow myself to be distracted and distractible. Or I can simply do the next thing that needs to be done, with care and commitment and faith in the rightness of things as they are. Without making a fuss. This is the way I want to live. And yes, I do need to keep reminding myself.

The photo my husband took at dawn this morning captures the fleeting beauty of the moment. It says “peace” to me. It’s easy for me to be grateful when I’m sitting in my own backyard, feeling blessed to have these gentle mountains as my neighbors.

Now, held captive in an over-air-conditioned terminal, with CNN blasting away, boarding announcements crackling over the loudspeaker, and the smell of pizza in the air, gratitude is a little more challenging to practice. But it occurs to me that living mindfully isn’t just about sitting and meditating, or about appreciating a beautiful sunrise. The real practice comes when we are called to keep going even when things aren’t exactly going our way. It’s using what’s at hand, and being ok with that. And so time is generous here, too. I have hours and hours to myself, with no place to go and nothing to do but wait for my delayed plane to arrive at the gate. Annoyance, or grace. The choice, of course, is mine. Perhaps the treasure of an ordinary day is always right in front of my nose; all I have to do is decide to see it.

The long walk

Driving out to Hopkinton in the dark on Sunday morning, it was hard to believe that we could possibly walk all that way back to Boston in one day. Hard to imagine all our fifty-plus-year-old bodies carrying us the distance we’d promised to go. Impossible to know how any of us would feel at the end of 26 miles. But it was easy to remember why were there in the first place, joining the throng of dedicated walkers: because we loved our friend Diane Brewster, and we knew without question that, had her cancer taken a different course, she would have been up at 4:30 that morning herself, tying on her own sneakers and walking in hope that the money raised might make the path through diagnosis and treatment a little easier for someone else.

Diane, who had to let go of so much toward the end of her life, held on tight to one dream, one vision: that the work she would have done with such passion had she lived be carried on by her loved ones after her death. To that end, she sat down a year ago and wrote her own obituary, carefully choosing her words to ensure that all gifts made in her memory come in the form of donations to Dana Farber’s Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. In a lifetime full of hard work for good causes, her final gesture was significant. She chose to entrust those of us left behind with the task of carrying her legacy into the future.

I remember sitting with my friend one day last fall, as she debated whether to leave her family a to-do list for Thanksgiving, the first holiday meal they would have to prepare without her. She finally figured that, one way or another, they would manage to get a turkey to the table. And so they did. But I think we are all grateful that when it came to her wishes for how she wanted to be remembered, Diane left us with such clear marching orders. In the midst of grief and loss, it helps to have something to do.

There were eleven of us who had pledged to walk the Jimmy Fund Marathon route in memory of Diane, and nine more who jumped in at the half-way mark. The fundraising was behind us, done and exceeding all our expectations. It was a beautiful day for a walk. We talked and laughed and stretched and shared the Advil and the blister block. We texted friends who cheered us on from a distance and caught up with one another’s lives and stories. Every kid got talked about. Every husband was discussed. Many good books and movies were recommended. More than once we paused to thank Diane — for bringing us together, for inspiring us, for letting us know exactly what she wanted us to do.

It took nine hours to walk from the center of Hopkinton to Copley Square. According to Kathleen’s trusty pedometer, each of us took about fifty-two thousand steps. As we crossed the finish line together, to shouts of “Let’s hear it for Team Diane,” there were tears, but they were about so much more than loss and sadness. They were tears of gratitude and blessing and joy as well.

“There is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love, nor should there be,” writes Nina Sankovitch in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, her memoir about the death of her sister. “Sorrow is not an illness or an affliction. It is the only response possible to the death of a loved one, and an affirmation of just how much we value life itself, for all its wonder and thrill and beauty and satisfaction.”

She continues, “Our only answer to sorrow is to live. To live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement. And to pass on those feelings of hope and possibility through acts of kindness, generosity and compassion.”

Acts of kindness, generosity and compassion – that’s what Sunday’s twenty-six mile walk was all about. The spirit of giving was everywhere: in all the people cheering us from the sidelines, in the elderly couple who stood outside their house offering orange slices to every person who walked by, in the college kids handing out water and snacks at the rest stations, in the crew making sandwiches under a tent at lunch time, in the waves and honks of encouragement from passing cars, in the fabulous dinner that Diane’s husband David put on for all of us walkers at the end of the day, in the donations that continue to arrive even now, and in countless other gestures of support and goodwill. My heart is full and brimming over with gratitude and sweet memories.

Yesterday morning, on my way out of town, I stopped by the cemetery where Diane’s ashes were buried last October. I sat on a chair in the sunshine and thought about what she’d said to me in our last real heart-to-heart conversation, a week before she died. I had just kissed her good-bye and was heading for the door when she called after me. “There is so much goodness in the world,” she said, “so much goodness.”

I’ve cherished those words ever since. And now, thanks to all the seeds of goodness that our friend sowed and nurtured and brought into bloom, I believe them.

Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me here with your donations, your words, your energy. I felt it all on Sunday! And because of you, I surpassed my personal fundraising goal and was able to contribute over $4,000 to Team Diane and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Together we raised over $30,000, all of it earmarked for Diane’s oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis, and her continued efforts to battle this disease.

Touch

I am always a bit melancholic as summer gives way to fall, and this year has been no exception. The change of season reminds me that the first anniversary of a dear friend’s death is looming. The boys have gone back to school, I have a birthday around the corner, a deadline to meet, a season’s worth of commitments made long ago that are now upon me.

A week ago, I could feel my own personal dark cloud settling over me like a cloak. And then, almost on a whim, I enrolled in a two-day course on Reiki healing. Last fall, hanging out with my friend Diane, sipping tea on the couch and chatting through the early autumn afternoons, I often found myself wanting to put my hands on her – as if the simple power of touch might somehow bring some small solace to us both. Sometimes, I gave in to the urge and rubbed her feet, or held her ankles in my hands as we talked.

But we are a hands-off culture, and to reach out in this way, human to human, hands to body, almost always means crossing some kind of barrier. We may feel free to talk about anything, but to lay our hands on another person is not something most of us do regularly or casually. For me, the impulse to heal through touch has always been there; what I lacked was any belief that my touch might actually be helpful or welcomed.

Two days of hands-on Reiki and I still don’t know if my hands are of much use to anyone but me. But I have learned this: simply settling into a quiet space with another person and allowing our hands to speak for us, to say to a friend or loved one, “You matter to me,” invites a sense of well-being. There is nothing quite like the gift of time and a loving touch to communicate caring and compassion – that became clear as I took my turn upon the table on Sunday, while my fellow students laid their hands upon my body and invited their Reiki energy to serve the highest healing good. It was so simple. So quiet. So practical. So wonderful.

And you know what? That elegiac case of “the blues” that visits me like clockwork every September has pretty much vanished into thin air. I’m not certain I’m cured, but it certainly seems as if some sort of healing has been going on here. Out for a run, I inhale the soft scents of the late-summer woods and give thanks for the fleeting beauty of the season. Each time I pause and put a hand upon my own heart, I’m almost absurdly pleased to feel it in there, beating steadily away. Laying Gracie out on the bed and laying my hands on her old arthritic haunches, I am filled with gratitude for all the years of walks we’ve shared, for all the mornings she got me up out of bed and out the door. She thumps her tail upon the mattress: could it be that she’s grateful, too? Sliding my palms against my husband’s sore back and breathing with him, I think how lucky we are, to have known and loved and shared one another’s bodies for a quarter century now. “That was nice,” he says, “thank you.” His back may not be better, but we are, reconnected by touch. Out in the garden, my hands at rest on my neighbor Debbie’s shoulders, I watch a hummingbird hovering over the petunias and am struck by the way this tiny, vibrating being embodies words we heard in class: “An invisible but palpable life force energy infuses and permeates all living forms. This energy is infinite, limitless, and pure.” Visiting a sick friend, I can tell she has no energy for conversation. But we can still spend time together in companionable silence as she reclines on her porch, my hands gently cradling her aching head.

I am a beginner, with four days of Reiki experience under my belt. Sitting with my hands cupped in my lap, drawing Japanese symbols in the air in my imagination, whispering strange words to myself, envisioning the highest healing good, I’m not quite sure whether I’m praying or meditating, or just opening myself up to forces already at work in the universe. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what’s important is simply to live in a state of awareness, and to give ourselves and others the opportunity to take a few moments each day to move back into balance and harmony with our souls, our bodies, our environment, one another.

Courage

Toward the end of my month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu last spring, each person in my class was handed a sheet of paper and a pen and asked to write the words “What I want to tell you is. . .”

The assignment, then, was to write a letter, a letter from the radiant, wide-open, yoga-saturated, heart-full self of that moment to some beleaguered, tired and doubting future self who might one day be in need of a little bucking up.

These letters, we were assured, would arrive in our mailboxes at the right time.

There were so many wild and wonderful and out-of-the- box experiences crammed into those thirty intense days of teacher training that I didn’t even remember writing a letter to myself. When a hand-addressed envelope arrived in my mailbox a week ago, I didn’t recognize the writing, which was much lovelier than my typical, hasty, printing-cursive hybrid. It seemed odd that the return address was my own. I sat down outside and read words that I had no memory of putting to paper. It felt as if I’d suddenly heard from my own best friend from long ago, a soul mate whose memory I cherish but who I haven’t seen or even thought about for a long time. To get a letter from her, out of the blue, was an unexpected gift. To realize that this distant, nearly forgotten person seemed to know exactly how I’d been feeling lately, and could say just what I needed to hear was like having an unspoken prayer answered.

“When it’s a choice between love and fear,” my wiser self told my struggling self, “choose love.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. Sometimes, when things are really hard and scary and not the way I want them to be at all, choosing love over fear seems crazy and impossible. But of course, love really is the only good choice. It’s just that choosing it can sometimes require so much more courage than I think I have.

In two days, both of my sons will head back to school. At our house right now, the bedrooms look like they’ve been ransacked, full of clothes and twisted bedding and backpacks and shoes and notebooks. (Both boys claim that what’s going on up there is a “deep clean”; to me it looks more like a deep shuffle.) The TV is tuned to the U.S. Open. The kitchen has been turned into Poster Rolling Central — Jack is working for his dad, earning money by stuffing hundreds of posters into mailing tubes. Steve is affixing labels. Henry is deleting two thousand songs from his iPod. The washing machine is running nonstop. The food is getting eaten as fast as I can cook it. As I sit here typing on the porch, I can hear the three guys laughing in the other room, commenting on the tennis, enjoying this last full day of summer vacation. Tonight we’ll go out for our ritual meal at Chili’s (democracy prevails on this front; alas, the vote for Chili’s is always 3 to 1) and to see the new Steve Carrell movie. It’s all good.

Except for the moments in the past week that have been awful. The ones that have pushed me to the outer limits of my abilities as a parent. There have been some of those, too. If you’ve ever shared your life with teenagers, you can easily supply your own details. And you probably also know that giving an adolescent the space he/she needs in order to grow up is as necessary as it is risky. Kids make mistakes, and our job as parents is to step back and allow them to fall, and then to make sure, too, that they actually learn what it’s like to hit the ground.

“I feel completely lost,” my son Jack said to me the other afternoon. I knew what he meant. The truth was, I was feeling pretty lost myself. But then I suddenly realized that I did have something to offer him. “You know,” I said, “you don’t have to figure everything out now. All you need to do is make the next good choice for this moment. You can certainly do that.” And then I left him there to figure it out. I put on my sneakers and went out for a run.

Choosing fear would have kept me in my chair, talking, trying to repair the damage and make things right for him. Choosing love means allowing him to own the struggle that rightfully belongs to him. It means having faith that this, too, shall pass.

“Parenting requires courage,” my friend Bruce wrote in a profoundly affecting essay this week. “Courage to set limits and bear anger; courage to let go and tolerate fear that our kids may come to harm; courage to trust that we and our children are enough.”

That pretty much says everything I want to hold on to during these final days of summer. I could pray for all sorts of things as my children make their way out into the world, but I doubt that even my most fervent appeals for their safety, health, and well-being would do a single bit of good. Those pleas are born of fear, of my own sense of helplessness in the face of dangers and environments and situations that aren’t mine to control. And so, I pray instead for the only thing I can really hope for: courage. Because courage, of course, is love in the face of fear. Somehow, after a month of yoga and meditation, a soft, vulnerable part of me knew that very well. Back in the world, faced with problems I can’t solve and children I can’t protect, I forgot.

Put two parents and two nearly grown young men in a house together at the end of a long summer, and it’s probably inevitable that everyone involved will do or say something that they will later regret. On this peaceful, companionable Sunday morning, I can now cut us all that much slack. The good news is: choosing love over fear brings us back to one another. And as soon as we stop feeling afraid of the dark, we are free to enjoy the simple pleasures of a few moments of light. As Bruce writes, “To fully feel fear, and then manage it, quell it, contextualize it, rise above it . . . now we’re talking courage.”

Yes.