In Awe

“You have to admit, this is an indulgence,” my husband says, as we walk across the windswept campus to meet our son. We’ve flown all the way from New Hampshire to Minnesota, just to watch the last performance of a production of “A Chorus Line.”

The way I see it: going out to dinner is an indulgence. Buying jewelry or a new pair of boots is definitely an indulgence. Raspberries in February, yes. But taking a couple of days off and flying halfway across the country to watch our son realize his life-long dream of being a musical director — especially for a full-scale, no-holds-barred production of a Broadway classic – to me this feels as essential, as important, as anything I’ve ever done as his mother.

There is not an empty seat in the theatre. The house lights dim. Henry, dressed in black, walks out and takes his place in front of the keyboard at the rear of the stage. For a moment, the spotlight falls on him as, his back to the audience, he lifts a hand to cue the band and begin the show.

How does anyone become who they are meant to be? How are life stories written, paths revealed, passions ignited? By what alchemy of genes and temperament and mystery are gifts bestowed, talents honed, and then offered to the world?

I remember this: We have flown to Orlando on the afternoon of December 25, with two-year-old Henry, to spend the second half of the day with Steve’s parents. We are still newlyweds, and every holiday feels like a game of push-me-pull-you between our two families; having bestowed a grandchild, we are much in demand. It is Sunday morning, the day after Christmas, and we have just finished brunch with Steve’s family at a glittery Disney World hotel.

There, in the sun-drenched lobby, an enormous grand piano gleams. Our toddler walks toward it as if drawn by a magnet. His dad follows, on the job, not about to let his kid start banging the keys in this very public place. But Henry is not a key-banger. He stands with a hand on the piano as if mesmermized; he’s never seen one before, has no idea what it’s for or what it does, knows only that he needs to know. Steve lifts him up onto the bench and sits down beside him.

My two guys are dressed in the matching teal and purple flannel shirts I’ve given them for Christmas – maybe they do look a little corny and out of place amongst the red and silver holiday décor of the Hilton, but they are, to my mind, adorable. They spend a few minutes there, meeting the first piano of Henry’s life. Tentatively he plunks a couple of notes. I snap photos, mostly because of the matching shirts. I am not thinking, “Maybe he’ll be a musician”; in fact, I’m probably not aware of much other than that Steve’s folks must want to get on the road, and that I’ve eaten too much. But, we still have the pictures I took that morning. And, looking at them now, I know: it began right then, in that moment twenty years ago when a little boy first touched a finger to an ivory key and heard music of his own making.

In one hundred days he will graduate from college. He is sending out resumes, putting together recordings, doing interviews with theatre directors by phone, trying to figure out the next step of his journey toward his Broadway dream. But this weekend, sitting in the audience and watching our son play piano and conduct the pit orchestra he’d been rehearsing and coaching for weeks, we had a glimpse both of his past and his future. Being there wasn’t an indulgence. It was an opportunity to pause and give thanks for every moment that led to this one: our son doing what he loves most and offering the best of all he’s worked so hard to be.

And what is our real job as parents, if not first to nurture the beings entrusted to our care, to have faith in their inchoate processes of growing and becoming, and then to show up, again and again, for as long as we are able, to bear grateful witness to their unfolding destinies?

Practice

The theme of my life this winter can be summed up in a word: practice. Two-thirds of the way through a memoir, with another four chapters to go and a deadline less than two months away, I have made a commitment to writing practice.

But I am a slow writer, never certain of the way forward, and so I have no choice but to practice patience.

Waiting for words to come, trusting that if I stay here long enough, the next sentence will find its way home to me, requires a certain kind of faith. Faith in mystery and faith in the process — and so I practice faith, too. Faith, it turns out, takes quite a lot of practice.

Yoga practice makes my writing practice possible; in order to sit for hours on end, I must first get up and really move.

Breathing practice fuels the yoga practice; without the union of breath and movement, yoga is just exercise, and I need a little more sustenance from my practice these days than a few leg lifts would provide.

Meditation practice guides me back into my writing, for before I can write so much as a line, I must listen. And in order to listen, I must practice stillness.

Stillness is a challenge, possible only when I practice discipline, for stillness is so not my nature. Discipline practice returns me to my yoga mat day after day, and then it hustles me right back upstairs, to my spot against the bedpillows and my laptop balanced on my knees, and the words on the page, and the view out the window.

I look at the dark curve of mountains against the winter sky, hear the whoosh of wind curling around the corner of the house, the ticking clock, the soft, steady breath of my dog asleep on the rug, and I practice gratitude, for really, what could be better than this – this life, this moment, this practice of pausing and noticing and saying “thank you”?

I used to think of my life in terms of the various roles and responsibilities that made me me: there was motherhood, house work and editing work and writing work, marriage, exercise, spirituality, friendship. Lots of expectations to juggle and jobs to tackle and experiences to either embrace or endure or reject. And never, ever, enough time to fit it all in or get it all done.

Writing was always the first thing to go. How could I sit alone in a room typing words on a screen when there were so many more “important” things I should be doing instead?

But with only a slight shift in imagination, everything has changed. I’ve come to see my life for what it is — not some elaborate story I’ve told myself a thousand times, but simply this: an opportunity to practice.

And suddenly, there is plenty of room and all the time in the world for me to do the only thing I need to do — keep practicing.

A little background: I wrote this post quickly, at the invitation of memoirist and writing teacher extraordinare Marion Roach, who is guest-editing this week over at SheWrites, a terrific site that empowers and informs women writers. (You can read her brilliant “Memoir Manifesto,” in which this little piece is included, here.) When I read Marion’s email, asking if I wanted to contribute something, my first impulse was to say, “Thanks, but no, I’ve got way too much on my plate already.” I was actually about to type just that into my “reply” box, when this started to come out instead. I think it is the first time I’ve ever written anything without thinking about it first. The first time words have ever “just come” to me. (I hear this happens quite often for OTHER writers, but not to me, not ever.) And yet, surprise, there it was. An answer. An affirmative answer rather than the “thanks but no thanks” I was intending to write. And this, I guess, is the benefit of practice. Do anything long enough, regularly enough, and eventually it starts to do you. Even writing practice.

A word about “Unimaginable,” last week’s post: Your comments made me cry. They made my heart overflow with gratitude. They reaffirmed everything I already believe in and cherish about the connections between women, between writers and readers, between friends who have never met. I wanted to answer every single one personally — but I also realized that I couldn’t; all I can do, for now, anyway, is keep writing and hope that you understand. I read every one, though, and I particularly loved the way conversations even sprung up between you, readers reaching out and finding one another right here, in this space. That is nothing less than a dream come true. Thank you.

And finally, in answer to some questions I got about about the Wholeheartedness Playlist widget: If you receive this blog as an email, you won’t see the widget. It’s on the website. Just click on the title in your email, and it’ll take you to my website, where the playlist can be found on the bottom left sidebar. (It’s also a bit easier on the eyes to read the post on the website!) Many thanks, and a Happy Wholehearted Valentines Day to all!

Unimaginable

We sat around the kitchen table after dinner last night — my son Henry, my husband Steve, and two of our dearest friends in the world, Lisa and Kerby.

I met Lisa eighteen years ago, when Henry visited her kindergarten classroom for the first time as a small, shy four-year-old. He already had an IEP from the public school system and a medical file that was two-inches thick. He’d been diagnosed with asthma at three months, sensory integration dysfunction and low muscle tone at two, and various other physical and developmental delays and concerns ever since. He saw an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, and a physical therapist every week – to learn how to do the things that other children his age could do without being taught, things like moving his tongue from side to side, skipping, or jumping up and down. To say we were worried about him would have been an understatement. We were first-time parents, and it seemed that every expert we talked to pointed out something else that was wrong with our son.

Lisa, quiet and gentle and observant, watched him in her classroom for two mornings. And then she did what no one else had ever done: she told us what was right with him — how carefully he listened, that he was clearly drawn to music, that he was emotionally aware, empathetic beyond his years, and kind.

She became Henry’s teacher and, soon, my friend. Our sensitive son thrived in Lisa’s rose-colored classroom. “I don’t know what you guys are doing,” said the occupational therapist after six months, “but it’s working. Henry doesn’t need to come anymore.” Soon, the others concurred. Meanwhile, Lisa and I clicked. We ran together, hiked, shared books, laughed and talked over countless cups of coffee. Steve and I met her future husband, and the four of us grew as close as two couples can be. In time, Lisa became Jack’s kindergarten teacher as well.

Our families spent time together, her three older boys much admired and emulated by our two younger ones. The memories piled up: New Years Eve feasts, camping out at their New Hampshire cottage, weekends in Maine, ferry rides to Monhegan and hikes around the island, wonderful meals cooked over campfires, long walks, and exhilarating swims. Years of affection and laughter and good times. When I turned forty, we celebrated at the cabin in the woods, watching the October sunset from a high hilltop, and then hiking down in the darkness to light a fire, share champagne and hot soup at the hearth, and then pile on hats and mittens for sleeping in the crisp fall air. It is still my favorite birthday ever.

Ten years ago next month, my friend’s older son was killed, just a few months shy of his college graduation. My own memory of that horrific day is still so fresh it’s hard to believe it’s been a decade. I remember Lisa asking, a few days after the funeral, “How will I live without him?” I remember not knowing how to answer her. I remember wondering, day after day and month after month, how I could help and what I could do. And I remember realizing there was no way to help and nothing anyone could do — except keep showing up.

Ten years ago, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child. I still can’t (although being Lisa’s friend through these wrenching, difficult years has helped me to understand). But ten years ago, I couldn’t imagine a lot of things.

Back then, I couldn’t imagine how my friend would ever heal, or how her family would keep going, or even how the two of us could ever possibly laugh again over nothing, the way we always used to do. I couldn’t imagine my own sons all grown up; how would I ever release them to the world and all its dangers, or bear witness to their loss of innocence?

Maybe a certain lack of imagination is what saves us from being paralyzed with fear for our children as they make their way in the world. Certainly what seemed unimaginable when my own sons were nine and twelve, the year that Morgan died, has slowly, inevitably, become the reality I’ve learned to take in stride as the years rolled by.

Right under my eyes, my children have done the unimaginable: they’ve grown up. They drive cars and stay out late and have friends I don’t know and drink beer and pay bills and make choices both good and bad and hold down jobs and put money in the bank and learn things I can’t begin to understand and have lives that belong wholly to them, lives they live away from me.

I couldn’t imagine any of this, and now I am living it. And, you know what? It’s okay. In fact, it is unimaginably good. In four months, I will be the mother of a college graduate myself. The boy who had to be taught how to send a message from his brain to his tongue is an accomplished pianist, an A student, a young man whose talents far exceed anything I could have imagined on that day when I crossed my fingers and prayed that he could hold his own for a morning of kindergarten. The other day, as we sat during intermission at the Boston Symphony, he patiently explained to me the mathematical theory behind post-tonal music. At this moment, Jack is in Montreal for winter break with thirty friends from his senior class and no adults. Even a year ago, I couldn’t have imagined granting permission for an unchaperoned road trip to a city five hours away where the drinking age is basically moot. And yet, after many conversations and agreements about how often he needed to check in with us, my husband and I found ourselves on the same page about this: ready to say “yes.”

There comes a time when our job is no longer to keep our children protected under our care but to entrust them to themselves. They are going to leave us anyway. But I think perhaps we give them a special gift if we can summon the courage to let them go with our blessings and our faith.

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” writes Mary Oliver. This strikes me as profound parenting advice, a reminder that there is so much more to this life than we can possibly see or touch or understand at any given moment. Our children’s paths are revealed slowly and in time, their true gifts perhaps obscured; their destinies not ours to write. We will love them no matter what. But we can’t keep them safe. And somehow, we must make our fragile peace with both of these truths. Keeping some room in my heart for the unimaginable makes it a little easier. For what can any of us do, but work our way toward surrender, surrender to reality in all its beauty and mystery?

A lot happens in ten years. What I’ve learned from sharing my friend’s journey is that grief doesn’t go away, but, like everything, it changes over time. The empty place in your heart is never filled up, but it changes, too. You get a little more used to the hole being there, and you learn to feel your way around it. Your sadness slowly becomes a bit more bearable for being familiar. You begin to realize that the world is full of people with broken hearts, and that what you thought was unique and singular to you is in fact part of being human. You are surprised when, for the very first time, you laugh again. And then you discover that, even in the midst of unimaginable sorrow, there are also moments shot through with grace and, yes, happiness.

Which brings me back to last night, and our dinner table. We lit the candles and ate chili and cornbread. We talked about the ten-year anniversary of Morgan’s death, a few weeks away, and how the girl he had planned to marry is a mother now herself, expecting her second child. She and Lisa stay in touch, bound still by their love for a young man who died too soon. After dinner, Henry gave Kerby a piano lesson, and helped him work through a song while the rest of us did dishes. Then we all sat around the table and played Balderdash. Before we knew it, it was 11:00 and we’d been laughing for hours. Eighteen years ago, when a kindly kindergarten teacher put her hand on my son’s small, vulnerable head and said, “I think he’ll be fine,” I couldn’t have possibly imagined a day when that boy would be a man, sitting at a piano teaching a complicated jazz riff to that teacher’s husband. Ten years ago, as my friend tried to get used to the world without her oldest son in it, I felt as if I’d lost her, too. I couldn’t imagine a future lit by her laughter. But here we are.

Wholeheartedness Playlist

As promised, Henry helped me pull together the Wholeheartedness playlist before heading back to Minnesota this afternoon. Here are the songs that inspire you — us! — to dance as though no one is watching, love as though you’ve never been hurt before, sing as though no one can hear you, and live as though heaven is on earth. Thanks so much for all your great suggestions. I listened to the whole list as I cleaned house yesterday — loved it, and am pretty sure it’s the first time Beethoven, the Muppets, and Louis Armstrong have ever shared a playlist. The list is below, and available for listening on the widget at the left.

Beethoven 7 (2nd movement)
What A Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong)
Moments Like These (Selah)
Free to Be Me, I’m Letting Go, This is the Stuff (Francesca Battistelli)
Celebrate Me Home (Kenny Loggins)
Blessed Be The Name of the Lord
Full Force Gale (Van Morrison)
What’s Light (Wilco)
Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Midler)
Santana Europa (Earth’s Cry/Heaven’s Smile)
How You Live (Point of Grace)
Blackbird (Sarah Vaughan)
Beautiful (Carol King)
Morning Has Broken (Cat Stevens)
Holy Now (Peter Mayer)
The Prayer (Andrea Bocelli and Celine)
Dance Me To The End of Love (Leonard Cohen)
A Living Prayer (Allison Krauss)
Rainbow Connection (The Muppets)
The Dance (Garth Brooks)
Forever Young (Rod Stewart)
Go Where Love Goes (Andrea Bocelli)
Desperado (The Eagles)
The Most (Lori McKenna)
Joy (George Winston)
Chant (Peter Bradley Adams)
By Thy Grace (Snatam Kaur)
Birds (Emiliana Torrini)
Diamonds (Girish)
Over The Rainbow (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole)
I Hope You Dance (Lee Ann Womack)
Mr. Blue Sky (ELO)
The Slender Thread That Binds Us Here (Kathy Mattea)