Poets of the everyday

“If your daily life seems of no account, don’t blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its treasures. For the creative artist there is no impoverishment and no worthless place.” — Rilke

I’ve been thinking about these words since I first read them a couple of weeks ago. What does it mean to be a poet of daily life? I often wish I were more creative, wish I possessed whatever spark of genius and imagination it takes to write fiction, to paint the landscape outside my window, to transform a garden bed into a tapestry of color or a fleeting moment into a poem.

And yet, much as I may aspire to make art, on a typical day the most creative thing I do is make dinner. I may practice yoga, talk intimately with a friend, do a good deed, or clean the bathroom – none of which strikes me as being very “artistic.” But Rilke seems to suggest that even such humble tasks can be creative endeavors, so long as they are done with care. If we are truly paying attention, then perhaps life itself becomes a work of art. We call forth the treasures of our ordinary, everyday lives by noticing, by cherishing, by appreciating the beauty that is right in front of us. Which is to say that, viewed in the right way, through the right eyes, everything is extraordinary: the slant of honeyed sun falling across the floor, the speckled globe of a pear ripening on the sill, the orderly profusion of pottery mugs on a shelf, the rise and fall of voices in conversation around the dinner table, the November moon sailing through bare treetops at dusk.

This month, I’ve been most deeply inspired by the collaboration between three women I’ve never met and probably never will, and yet whose lives have come to feel interwoven with my own. The connection began with an email from a woman in Germany who had read “The Gift of an Ordinary Day,” and had the idea to begin photographing daily scenes from her own “ordinary life.” She invited two friends to join her. Each day or so, the women share intimate, unguarded glimpses of their lives in Upper Frankonia, Munich Bavaria, and the Island of Ruegen in Estonia: a foggy morning, a basket of laundry, chickens in the yard, a child at play, an orchid on a window sill. I study these images in search of the women who create them, sensing kindred spirits, like-minded souls, deep affinity.

What began for me as an interesting coincidence – a reader in Germany had somehow found her way to my book! – has come to feel like a spiritual connection that exists beyond barriers of time and place and language. Every morning when I turn on my computer, I’m grateful for these glimpses into lives that may seem perfectly “ordinary” to the women experiencing them but that are, to my American eyes, exotic and beautiful and, yes, poetic. I am honored to be invited in, and I am reminded to look more deeply into the unnoticed nooks and crannies of my own life, to illuminate them with attention and gratitude.

In the garden of our imaginations, we sow and nurture the reality of our lives. What we see, what we choose to notice, grows in value and in beauty because it is beloved. Thanks to the exquisitely graceful, generous work of three strangers, I feel a more intimate connection to my own quiet life in the New Hampshire countryside. And I am reminded, too, of the deep and mysterious connections between us all. We are all human beings sharing this blessed, fragile planet, caretakers of both people and place. Performing the humble tasks of ordinary life with love, we become poets of the everyday, calling forth the treasures that sustain our spirits and feed our souls. And what could be more creative, or more necessary, than that?

To visit A Glimpse of an Ordinary Day: three women, three lives, three locations, click Here.

Occupy Downtown

Every year at this time, I find myself thinking about how to make the holiday season simpler and more meaningful. More joyful and less stressful. A reflection of our family’s values and what really matters to us, rather than a last-minute scramble to make sure there are enough wrapped packages under the tree.

Last weekend, while checking things off my to-do list downtown, I suddenly had a revelation: I am so lucky to live in a town where there still IS such a thing as “downtown.”

And that’s when I decided that, much as I appreciate the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, my own theme this holiday season is going to be: “Occupy Downtown.”

My hometown is still a place where you can buy organic vegetables or a snowblower, a cup of pea soup to go or a fair-trade basket from Peru, art supplies or plumbing supplies, antique linens or a toy for a toddler, a hand knit hat or a pair of hiking boots, local honey or imported cheese. You can browse at the Toadstool, attend a poetry reading, eat lunch at the diner, stroll through an art gallery, and go to a movie. Or you can drop off your dry cleaning, pick up batteries and trash bags, bring a load of cans to the recycling center, and get your oil changed. Chances are, wherever you go, someone will know your name. The bag boy at the market will carry your groceries out to your car. The owner of the clothing store will know it’s your birthday month and what size jeans you wear. The clerk in the bookstore will have saved the last copy of Joan Didion just for you.

This is the way small-town life is supposed to be. This is my definition of the good life. It is also a way of life that is vanishing before our eyes. If we want our downtowns to survive, we have to inhabit them.

“Out-sourcing” is not just something big corporations do, it’s a habit I’ve fallen into myself. How often do I click a button and order from Amazon, instead of buying from a shopkeeper right here in town? More often than I like to admit. The truth is, I can buy every single thing I need or want locally. And yet too many of my dollars end up elsewhere, in the well-stuffed pockets of huge corporations that have no connection with my everyday life.

Well, I’m done. I care about the place I live and I care about the people who make this town the lively, vibrant, inviting community it is. These folks don’t live on air. They depend on cash register receipts. Their stores can’t continue to exist just for my idle sight-seeing and window-shopping pleasure; they need me — they need all of us — to walk through the doors and open our wallets.

And so, I vow here and now to Occupy Downtown this holiday season. I’m shopping in my own back yard, and no where else. I may buy less, but I’ll feel good about where every dollar lands. I’ll take time to chat with the shopkeepers and let them know how grateful I am that they’re here. Simple. Meaningful. Stress free.

I invite you to join me. Occupy your own downtown. Swear off one-click ordering, and go out and see what that funky little shop on the corner has to offer. Our dollars have power. When we spend them locally, we put money back into the towns we love — for city services, road repairs, schools. We support the businesses that meet our needs and desires, that hire our neighbors, that donate to our causes, and that enrich our lives. And we connect face-to-face with real people instead of interfacing with computer screens and feeding the coffers of anonymous corporations.

A holiday gift for you!

I’d love to send you a Christmas gift from my town. Leave a note here and share the “Occupy Downtown” message someplace else — Facebook, Twitter, a blog, whatever. I will draw a name at random after midnight on November 23 to receive a special gift from my town.

And speaking of independent bookstores. . .

My dear friend Ann Patchett is doing a pretty amazing job of occupying downtown herself. When the last independent bookstore in Nashville closed its doors, she decided to open her own. But she’s under no illusions; even a bookstore owned by a best-selling author can’t exist without customers. As she says, “This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your barcode. If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”

Here’s the whole story — page one of today’s New York Times.

Happy birthday

He turns nineteen tomorrow.

Last week, we were in Boston for a college interview. It was an opportunity for him to tell his story in person, this young man who attended three different high schools, spent nine winter weeks living in the woods and sleeping under a tarp, got into his share of mischeif, and has not always seen the point of homework.

“If your fifteen-year-old self were sitting here in the room right now,” the college admissions person asked, “what would you have to say to him?”

“Well,” the about-to-be-nineteen-year-old replied, “I’d have a lot of advice for him. But he wouldn’t listen to any of it.”

And then he thought for a moment, and added, “And actually, although I would really want to save him from some pain and trouble, I think I’m glad that he’d blow me off, because those were all lessons he really had to learn himself, the hard way, by living through them.”

Jack told me this as we drove out the Mass Pike, back toward his school. He said that, looking back, he wouldn’t want to change anything about these last few years, difficult as they were at times, because everything he’d done, and even the mistakes he’d made and the consequences he’d endured, had made him who he is today and brought him to the place he is right now — a place that is exactly where he wants to be.

I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on my younger son, nineteen years ago tomorrow. He was delivered out of my body and into my arms wide awake, curious, and hungry. He looked, to my husband and me, a bit like a tiny, benign Jack Nicholson, with his spray of fine dark hair pointing northeast and a funny little scrunch at the eyes. I remember gazing into that brand new and already beloved face and making a wish for the future, a wish that this child’s life would be one of ease and health and happiness.

Tonight, I send my son a different wish: that he will always regard his life with gratitude. Much as I might wish to protect him from strife, what I wish even more is that he might ride out the hard times knowing that each moment offers its lesson, each day its own blessing. Because the truth of it is, we don’t need things to be easy or perfect in order to be happy, nor will they ever be. Not for long, anyway. Life is hard, and loss and disappointment are always part of the equation, as Jack has already figured out. And yet, as David Steindl-Rast writes, “Happiness is not what makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

I baked Jack a cake, the very same cake he had when he was nine, with M&Ms and walnuts and chocolate chips on the top. I packed it up in a box, along with plates and napkins and forks and even a few party hats, and mailed it to arrive tomorrow, in time for him to gather some dorm mates around to help eat it. And I hope that sometime during the day, between class and soccer and basketball practice and dinner and study hall and hanging out with friends, he pauses for just a moment to regard his own young life as the fathomless mystery it is. May he continue to grow up knowing that the boredom and pain of life are as essential as the excitement and the gladness. May he come to understand that every choice he makes matters. As does every minute of every precious day. And may he begin to see that all the moments, even the little ones, are key moments, and that life, yes life itself, is the gift.