Slow Journey

I’ve spent the last three weeks in one place doing one thing. And, although I will leave my mother’s house two days from now with a stack of manuscript pages, I will also leave with a great deal more knowledge about how I get in my own way.

There are people, many of them dear friends of mine, who can’t wait to sit down alone and shape their thoughts and feelings into sentences and paragraphs. I so wish I were one of them. There are some who have learned to trust their creative process, others who entertain a muse, some who simply feel most alive when they are creating. I am not any of these people, either.

For me, writing is a slow, halting journey from experience to thought to written word. It is a wonder I do it at all, given how inefficiently I travel, and how adept I am at coming up with countless more “productive” ways to spend my time. Show me a sink full of dirty dishes to address, or a few emails to answer, or an 8 a.m. yoga class, and all my mental synapses go into flight and alight mode. My house is never cleaner than when I have a deadline, my yoga practice never stronger than when I’m in the middle of a writing project. Here in Florida, in my mom’s back bedroom, flight is not an option. I came all the way down here to sit in a chair and fight my own little battle with myself.

Last week my friend, the extraordinary (and extraordinarily prolific) author Beth Kephart wrote this about the craft of memoir: “We are speaking about how we shape what we have lived, what we have seen. About how we honor what we love and defend what we believe in. Makers of memoir dwell with ideas and language, with themselves. They counter complexity with clarity. They locate a story inside the contradictions of their lives—the false starts and the presumed victories, the epiphanies that rub themselves raw nearly as soon as they are stated.”

Dwelling with myself. That really is my challenge. It is so much easier, so much more tempting, to turn away, to get busy doing something else, to skim along on the surface of my life instead of stopping, sitting still, going inside, and going deep. To write, or to read, about the inner life is to believe that what we think and how we feel matters. To be a friend of memoir is to stake a claim for the significance of the examined life. It is to say that our inner narratives are as important as the activities and achievements, the successes and failures, that fill our days. It is to say that locating the story within the contradictions of our lives is a worthy pursuit.

“We read,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “to remember that we are not alone.” It is also why we write. To remember that we have much to learn from our most difficult conversations with ourselves and with each other. And that in sharing the truth of who we are and how we struggle, we remind another struggling someone that they do not journey alone.

Thanks to all of you who contributed suggestions to the “Wholeheartedness” playlist. Next week my in-house tech support son, Henry, will be home. Together, we’ll compile the list and post it here. Till then, feel free to add your favorite songs. (I’ve been listening to the ones I didn’t know and I have to say, I think we’re on to something: it’s a great list of heart-opening, uplifting music!)

Bootcamp & “Boxes”

I am in Florida this month, enjoying my own private writer’s bootcamp for one. By the time my sons went back to school after Christmas, it was pretty clear to me that if I had any hope of making my book deadline in March, I was going to have to take drastic steps. So, my husband booked me a plane ticket, and here I am, holed up in my mother’s quiet guest room, with no distractions, no responsibilities, and nothing to do but write. My mom doesn’t care if I go for twelve hours without speaking. She has her own life. And here, alone with my laptop, I am finally making some headway. I write. I take a run. Write. Do yoga. Write some more. That’s about it.

Two years ago this month, my aunt Gloria, my mother’s only sister, died. The two of them were close. They saw one another several times a week, and I know my mom misses her terribly. This week, in honor of the anniversary of my aunt’s death, I have invited my first guest-blogger into this space, my mother. She doesn’t consider herself a writer, and yet when she showed me this piece, I knew I wanted to publish it here, to share the amazing woman who is my mother with all of you. I am so grateful to her for giving me a way to “retreat” for a while. And I’m proud to introduce her to you, my readers and on-line friends. The photo was taken the year Gloria died. That’s my mom, Marilyn Kenison, on the left.

BOXES

I held my sister’s hand as she took her last labored breaths and, with a final gasp, passed from this world to the next. It was the first time I had witnessed a death and somehow I expected more. But that was it. The end. No more. No more breaths, no more movement, just stillness.

“She’s gone,” I said, as much to myself as to her husband beside me. He was prepared and knew who to call: the hospice nurse to make the official pronouncement, the crematorium to take away the body, the children. Within an hour, my sister truly was gone. Gone not only from my sight, but from this life, forever.

A few days later, she was back. I went over to her house to help her husband sort through a few things and when I arrived he said, “Gloria’s in the bedroom.” And she was. Sitting on her bureau was a bright yellow shopping bag, and in the bag a plain, white, cardboard box. And in the box, the remains of my sister. I stood looking at that box and the incongruous yellow bag. With a bit of tissue paper and a bow on the handle it could have been carried with pride to any party.

The bag and its box remained undisturbed on the bureau for several months. Whenever I visited the house I would find a few moments to stand before it and wait – for a sign, a feeling, something to reach me from the other side to let me know my sister had safely arrived. But there was nothing, just the silent, inscrutable box.

Our parents are buried in a lovely cemetery in New Hampshire. Gloria had told me and her husband that she would like a marker placed on their grave to commemorate her life. It was arranged that when I left Florida to drive north for the summer, I would take my sister’s remains with me. I didn’t feel right about relegating the yellow bag and its contents to the trunk, so I set it on the back seat, next to my dog and his bed. Gloria loved dogs. I think she would have liked that arrangement.

Back in New Hampshire I assigned Gloria’s remains to the dining room, one of the most pleasant but little-used rooms in our house. A few months later, as I set the table for dinner guests, with profuse apologies I moved her to the hall closet. The dinner guests were her husband, Chet, and a lady friend. Although the family was comfortable with Chet’s newfound companion (at 83 you can’t wait too long to take the next step in life), my sisterly loyalty prevented me from serving the soup that evening in the presence of the yellow bag.

A granite marker with appropriate wording was placed on my parents’ grave later that summer. Together, Chet and I had removed a spoonful of powdery ash from the cardboard box and placed it in an empty film canister. The monument maker, a long- time friend, agreed to tuck the canister beneath the stone when he put it in place, even though such a burial was against the rules of the cemetery.

That left me with the rest of my sister’s remains and no instruction as to what to do next. Before she had become bedridden, Gloria and I had spent a week together at our family house on Bailey Island in Maine. We reminisced, ate lobster and ice cream, painted with a local watercolor group, and each evening made a ritual of pouring a glass of wine and watching the sunset. One of those sunsets was the most spectacular show of brilliant reds, oranges, and magenta either of us had ever seen. That particular summer sunset was something we talked about many times during Gloria’s remaining two years. It was our own special memory. I decided to leave Gloria’s ashes on Bailey Island, with a view of all the sunsets to come from now to eternity. This time the yellow bag shared the front seat with me, as Gloria and I made our final trip to Maine.

Each evening for a week I watched as dusk approached, waiting for just the right moment to release my sister’s spirit to the world, but the sky remained somber. Finally, it was my last night and although there was no sign of a sunset, I knew I must complete my mission. I sat on a rock and remembered my sister. It was easy to conjure the evening we had shared, in awe of one of nature’s greatest shows. I opened the box of ashes half expecting to hear one small, final sound, perhaps the sigh of her spirit passing through, but the night was quiet and the sky still gray. What to do next? The sheer volume of chalky white ash and what it represented overwhelmed me. I didn’t know how to proceed. Here, after all, was my sister. I felt responsible to her still, wanting to somehow imbue this moment, our last contact, with dignity and meaning. Through tears of frustration and grief I emptied the box over the grasses, rocks, and water. Small piles settled on the ground or floated away on waves. Suddenly the water was alive with light.

I looked up at the sky. The clouds were parted by a white brilliance. There was no color, no red or orange, but it didn’t matter. The light was pure and dazzling; the effect, breathtaking. I had the sign I had been waiting for.
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Wholeheartedness practice — and a book for you

Last week, I wrote about wholeheartedness, a word that truly seemed to pick me, rather than the other way around, for 2012. On New Year’s Day, my last morning at Kripalu, having accepted my word, I decided that I would simply allow myself to live into it.

Moment by moment, I would try to do the loving thing, whatever that might be. Instead of second guessing myself, worrying about what might happen next, or trying to come off a certain way, I would set my foot down firmly on the side of love over fear. And so, at the risk of being the one who loves more, I sat down and wrote a note to a friend, just to say, “you are important to me.” At the risk of being silly, I emailed my husband to tell him I love him, as much when we’re apart as when we’re together. At the risk of seeming mushy, I let my son Henry know how much it meant to me that he was willing to spend the New Year’s weekend eating brown rice and doing yoga with his mom, instead of hanging out with his friends.

Back at home, I made dinner for the family, lit the candles, held my kids’ hands as we said grace together, and, at the risk of appearing vulnerable, allowed my full heart to overflow. The next morning, Henry and Steve left early for the airport and Henry’s flight back to Minnesota, and I went hiking, arriving at the top of Pack Monadnock in time to watch the sun come up. Standing there alone on the top of a wind-whipped mountain at dawn, overcome by a sense of awe at the vastness and beauty of this world, I also realized that I felt more connected to myself than I have in a long while, a little more at ease in my skin and a little more accepting of the raw intensity of my own emotions.

“Wholehearted,” it seemed, wasn’t really a resolution I had to keep. In fact, it felt more like a choice, one I could make moment to moment, a way of inhabiting my life that feels akin to faith. Faith that life is already good, faith that I already have what I need, faith that I’m enough as I am, faith that things are just fine as they are, and faith that, no matter what the circumstance and even when I don’t have a clue what to do, the loving thing is always my best bet. What a relief. And what a revelation. I kind of thought I’d just invented a whole new concept: Wholeheartedness!

I went home and had breakfast with my son Jack, and then I sat down to write a blog about Wholeheartedness. Within a few hours of posting it, as I read through the thoughtful, generous comments on this site and on Facebook, I learned, of course, that there is already an entire Wholehearted Living movement afoot — and that I’m just one more latecomer to the wholehearted conversation.

No matter. I am happy to be here, thrilled to jump in and learn more, to share what I discover, and to encourage you, too, in the words of Wholeheartedness pioneer Brene Brown, to “let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.”

I have just finished reading Brene’s wonderful book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” and can’t recommend it highly enough. My own copy is full of folded pages and underlined passages.

A passage about courage particularly resonates with me. The root of “courage” is cor, Latin for “heart.” And in one of its earliest forms the word “courage” meant something very different than it does today. Courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s whole heart.” This, I realize, is what is required of all writers. It’s how I want to live. It’s how I want to be in relationship with the people I love. And, well, speaking and writing honestly about who we really are and what we’re really feeling is scary stuff. “Ordinary courage,” Brene suggests, “is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”

Brene’s TED talk on vulnerability and worthiness was one of the top ten TED talks of 2011. Pour yourself a cup of tea, treat yourself to a twenty-minute break, and give it your wholehearted attention. And make sure to visit her terrific blog, Ordinary Courage, where, as it turns out, she writes this week about the word that found her for 2012.

Elisabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open” is a wholehearted manual for living through difficult times. Given to me by a dear friend two years ago, when I was going through a difficult time of my own, it has remained my go-to book when I need to be reminded that every challenge I face makes me stronger, that suffering enlarges my heart, that a “whole” life includes both light and dark, joy and sorrow, emptiness and fullness. “So often,” Lesser writes, we “tune out the call of the soul. Perhaps we fear what the soul would have to say about choices we have made, habits we have formed, and decisions we are avoiding. Perhaps if we quieted down and asked the soul for direction, we would be moved to make a big change. Maybe that wild river of energy, with its longing for joy and freedom, would capsize our more prudent plans, our ambitions, our very survival. Why should we trust something as indeterminate as a soul? And so we shut down.”

As I struggle to write a book I feel uncertain about, agree to speaking engagements that make my knees shake despite being months away, and wonder what, exactly, my nearly grown children still need from me and how to give it to them, I remind myself that nothing really needs to be as complicated as I make it. I don’t have to change who I am, I simply have to be who I am. I can tune in to the call of my soul. I can live wholeheartedly. I can embrace the gift of imperfection. I can do the loving thing and trust that love really is enough.

I am seriously thinking about creating a Wholehearted Playlist; when I do, I’ll share it. Meanwhile, here’s the song I’ve played a couple of times every single day since January 1, just to remind me of who I really am – and of how a really great song can set the tone for an entire day. Have a listen to Girish’s “Diamonds in the Sun,” definitely my song for 2012.

02 Diamonds In the Sun

What piece of music says “wholehearted” to you? Leave a comment here – or, better yet, a suggestion for the Wholehearted Playlist — and you may win a copy of Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I would love to share her work with all of you, but since I can’t do that, I’ll choose two names at random after midnight on January 16 to receive the books.

Here’s to singing our song in this new year, wholeheartedly!

Wholeheartedness

,“Wholeheartedness.” It’s a mouthful. It’s also the word that has been ricocheting around in my thoughts for a week. The word I keep coming back to when I imagine who I want to be and how I want to live. The word that is surely the antidote for the devouring self-doubt that’s lately been haunting my days and keeping me awake at night. What I suffer with in the darkness is this: My best efforts aren’t enough. I don’t have what it takes to be the mother my two sons need, the wife my husband desires, the friend my own friends deserve, the writer I want to be, the woman I still hope to become.

And in moments of light, when I can quiet the voice in my head long enough to listen to what my soul is trying to tell me, I hear this: It is okay to stumble. You are allowed to fail. Doubt your doubts. (Because in fact you are okay just as you are.) Know that you are worthy of your joy and strong enough to survive your pain. Wholeheartedness is what you’re here for.

I know that’s all true. It’s just that lately, I feel depleted, half-hearted, out of ideas and out of confidence. Not even quite up to the job of being me.

I packed quickly to go to Kripalu for the weekend; there wouldn’t be time for much besides the yoga workshop Henry and I were doing together, but I stopped by my bookshelf on the way out the door and threw a couple of books into my bag anyway, almost at random. And then I kissed Steve and Jack good-bye, climbed into the car with Henry and, for the first time ever, our family split up for New Year’s Eve.

Kripalu turned out to be a good place to usher in 2012. Many hours of yoga with my beloved, first-ever yoga teacher, Rolf Gates. A walk by the lake, particularly tasty kale for dinner, a long silent meditation at midnight, time to reflect on the year past and the one to come, deep sleep, early rising.

I loved the sense of belonging that washes over me as soon as I set foot through the door of Kripalu. I loved being in the very room this weekend that my month-long teacher training was held in last winter; the memories were fresh in my mind, the faces of my classmates easy to conjure. I loved not having to think about what to wear, or what to cook, or what to do at midnight, or how many glasses of champagne I should have. I loved having time in solitude and I loved meeting, at long last, my dear on-line friend Pamela, whose gorgeously written blog Walking on My Hands is one of the few I read religiously. And I especially loved it that my twenty-two year old son was so open and willing to sign on for the ride, to give yoga and meditation a try, to experience firsthand this place that’s come to mean so much to me, and even to spend a weekend as my room mate. I know he did it for me, and his presence at my side was a gift. Henry may be a beginner on the mat, but he is a yogi in spirit.

(My husband Steve was happy to be home alone on New Year’s eve, which is what he prefers anyway, and I’m sure Jack was quite relieved I wasn’t around to tell him to “make good choices” or offer up some other motherly platitudes as he headed out the door to spend the night with his friends.)

Very early yesterday morning, I sat down with one of the books I’d brought along, an odd little volume that’s been sitting, unread, on my shelf for a long time. A brief, unlikely meditation on unencumbered living, “Journeys of Simplicity” is essentially a collection of lists about traveling light: what Thoreau took to Walden Pond, what an 85 year old hermit needed to survive, what an anonymous Celtic woman prayed for a hundred years ago.

My book fell open to page 39, “Raymond Carver’s errand list.” According to Carver’s partner and companion, poet Tess Gallagher, he always lived according to what she calls Carver’s law. It was his practice, she says, “not to save up things for some longed-for future, but to use up the best that was in him each day and to trust that more would come.”

Even as he was dying of cancer at age fifty, Carver continued to write and plan and hope. Just after his death, she found this to-do list in his pocket:

Eggs
peanut butter
hot choc

Australia?

Antarctica??

Hope. Wholeheartedness. Ordinariness. How beautifully these three qualities intertwine in our best, most essential expressions of our humanity. To live is to hope. To live wholeheartedly is to trust that there is always more to come, to believe in the rightness of things as they are, to drink hot chocolate and dream of far-off continents even as you confront the loss of everything you love. It was not lost on me that someone else’s final, heartfelt errand list was the very first thing I laid eyes on as the first day of this new year dawned. The message from the universe seemed pretty clear: live fully, live here, live now. Wholeheartedly.

After two days of meditation and challenging yoga practice I was tired, a little sore, and more than a little raw when our last session began. As we moved through our final series of poses, I could feel the tears gathering behind my eyes, ready to spill. “You know,” Rolf suggested, as we eased down into child pose, resting foreheads to mats, coming into stillness, “it is okay to be vulnerable. In fact a willingness to feel our feelings completely, to show our vulnerability, to acknowledge our own tenderness and confusion, is really what living wholeheartedly is all about. To be wholehearted is to be vulnerable.”

And then, at that moment, a pair of knowing hands pressed down upon my back, smoothed along my spine, and rested there for a long, full minute. An assist in child pose, yes. But also, I’m pretty sure, some cosmic, loving gesture made on my behalf, just to make sure that the mail really was getting delivered: “wholeheartedness.”

The tears I’d been fighting off all weekend came then, tears of surrender and grace and relief. I didn’t have to make a new year’s resolution I couldn’t keep, or choose a word to try to live up to. The word I needed found me, hovered for a while, and landed. What better time than right now, the dawn of this new year, to give up my own unnecessary suffering, suffering that is all about believing I need to be someone other than who I am?

And so, gently and with great love, I say to myself – and to you, too – as we step into 2012: “Live wholeheartedly. Know that your vulnerability means that you’re alive. Remember who you really are. Use up the best that’s in you each day, and trust that it’s enough.”

Yesterday, on a gray, colorless January 1, this rose was a singular spot of color. Someone had placed it on an altar in the woods, and there it lay – exposed, vulnerable to the elements, yet, bravely, pinkly, wholeheartedly being itself, a rose in winter. May we, too, bloom with wholeheartedness in this new year.

Do you have a word that is your touchstone? Does the idea of “wholeheartedness” resonate with you? I would love to know!