making room

A few weeks ago I phoned my son Jack in Asheville. “How would you feel about me taking over your bedroom at home and turning it into a writing space?” I asked.

I’d hesitated for weeks before raising this idea. But Jack didn’t hesitate in his response. “Oh, that’s fine,” he said, “you can do whatever you want with my room.”

Although we have a tiny office on the first floor of our house, I’ve never written a word in it. The desktop computer is my husband’s and his in-box sits beside it, overflowing with not-urgent papers and clippings and instruction manuals. The window above the desk looks out to the driveway and whatever vehicles happen to be parked there. The counter is a repository for checkbooks and bills to be paid, stamps and envelopes. And the chair, just the right height for Steve, is not very inviting to me. The office is a perfectly good place to write a check or Google driving directions, but it’s not a space my muse has ever chosen to visit.

Most of the words I’ve produced over the last ten years in this house have come from a stool at the kitchen table, where I look out to a view of fields and mountains and sky. I’ve spent countless hours perched there, staring out the windows above the sink while trying to pull my thoughts together. As a mother, as a wife, as a cook and homemaker, and also as a writer, I’ve always been drawn to this room, my own home base, whether I’m chopping something, stirring something, washing something, or writing something. Soups and emails, jars of jam and blog posts, thank you notes and books, all have come from my kitchen. More often than not, several of these things are coming together at once, which means that the written work can easily be shifted to the bottom of my priorities list. No one actually cares if I write or not, but dinner does have to appear on that table every night.

And yet, as summer turned to fall this year, I found myself longing for some other kind of place, a place not in the middle of the action but away from it. A place in which some new work might begin to take shape, privately and quietly. A place where there is nothing that needs to be chopped or watered or cleaned or stirred, where books of memoir and poetry would be easily at hand, and where my laptop and notes and papers don’t have to be put away at the end of the day so that placemats and napkins and silverware can be laid out in their place. [continue…]

happy reports

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The other morning, I snapped the leash onto Tess’s collar and headed out for a walk. We followed our old route, down the hill from our house, onto the bike path toward town, and home again. Nothing too ambitious, yet this was the first time in two years I’ve taken this particular four-mile walk without feeling pain. It was also the first time since having both of my hips replaced last winter that I felt confident enough in my new hardware, and in my healing, to risk having Tess lunge unexpectedly or pull me off balance. I’m strong enough now to hold onto her, strong enough to hike back up the hill without pausing to catch my breath, strong enough to do the whole loop in under an hour. And so it is that a daily ritual I once took for granted has been transformed into an experience that feels special, one I’m grateful for.

IMG_8921So much of what I’ve struggled with, and written about, over the last couple of years has had to do with loss and grief, what Jack Kornfield so evocatively calls “the storm clouds of the heart.” Sitting alone in a quiet room, finding words that both pay homage to the richness of human experience while also acknowledging how vulnerable I often feel in the face of that experience, has given me a way to come to terms with some of the inevitable challenges of growing older — the illnesses and deaths of dear friends, concern for the struggles of a young adult son, life chapters ending, intimate relationships transforming, elderly parents facing their mortality, a body that’s showing the wear and tear of nearly six decades of hard use.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether “ordinary days” would ever return. Or if in fact the best days were behind me now and my own “ordinary” would forever more be tinged with sadness, a kind of constant, chronic, low-grade grief, like the slight limp I’m learning to live with as result of having one leg that ended up being an eighth of an inch longer than the other.

The answer, it turns out, is no. [continue…]

downsizing, 10 things my mom taught me
& a Mother’s Day offer

IMG_8557In a few weeks my parents will say good-bye to the antique red house surrounded by woods and fields that has meant “home” to our family for nearly forty-five years. At eighty and seventy-nine, my folks could have chosen assisted living or even a simple condo for this next chapter of their lives. Instead, in good health and always game for a project, they’ve built themselves a small, fully accessible cottage on a pond just eight minutes from where my husband and I live now. Still, this move calls for a major downsizing. And as anyone who’s helped an elderly parent move knows all too well, letting go can be tricky emotional territory, for both generations.IMG_0433

Our old family homestead is a charming Cape built in 1765, with many original details intact but enhanced by a spacious later addition, designed by my parents and complete with a porch, master suite, spa, and a generous living room. Filled with the antiques and special pieces my mom collected over the decades, each nook and cranny of the house is cozy and welcoming and uniquely beautiful. My mother’s special touch is in evidence at every turn – a collection of birds’ nests displayed on an old glass table, a row of white ironstone pitchers on the mantle, a small, antique oil painting propped amongst the gardening books, a wicker chair in a sunny corner.

The new, small cottage has a different feel altogether – spare and clean and open, with white walls and simple, modern lines. A few of my parents’ favorite things are making the move with them. Most of their furnishings and possessions, however, either won’t fit or just don’t “go” in their new, downsized quarters.

IMG_8581Months ago, at my parents’ request, my brother and I did a walk-through of our childhood home, looking for things we might want for our own houses, taking measurements and promising my parents we’d get back to them with our lists. I don’t know about my brother and his wife, but Steve and I found it hard to return to our own fully furnished house and see places where a mahogany table or an old pine bookcase might fit. I stuck my list of “possibles” in a file folder and let it sit there.

Now, though, the time of reckoning has arrived. [continue…]

expectations

IMG_8239Before we can change anything in our life, we have to recognize that this is the way it is meant to be right now. For me, acceptance has become what I call the long sigh of the soul. It’s the closed eyes in prayer, perhaps even the quiet tears. It’s “all right,” as in “All right, You lead, I’ll follow.” And it’s “all right” as in “Everything is going to turn out all right.” This is simply part of the journey.
Sarah Ban Breathnach, from Simple Abundance

I was pretty confident I would be a kind of poster child for hip replacement recovery. I’m relatively young, not overweight, in decent shape for someone who’s been slowed down by advancing osteoarthritis for two years. In all that time, despite encroaching pain, I did my best to keep exercising. I continued my daily yoga practice, albeit a modified practice using blocks and a chair and bolsters. I waited a full year to see a highly recommended surgeon at one of the country’s best orthopedic hospitals. I scheduled my surgeries for 6 weeks apart at the end of 2105, so I could begin the new year with two new hips.

And I figured that if I followed instructions to the letter, did my physical therapy religiously, and didn’t push too far or too fast, I’d soon resume my old, normal life. Some people had warned, “This is major surgery.” But others said, “It’s no big deal.” Those were the ones I chose to believe. I was nervous, of course. But this had already been a long road. (I wrote about that here.) And within a few days of my second surgery, I had myself convinced I would negotiate this little patch of rough ground easily and soon be back on course with my life.

Yes, that’s called an “expectation.” And you’d think I’d know by now that getting attached to an expectation is a good recipe for disappointment. [continue…]

four lessons I learned from surgery

FullSizeRender 2It’s been two and a half weeks since my second hip replacement, a bit more than two months since the first. And I’m finally approaching the moment when I can look back and say, “It was worth it.” As of a few days ago, I’m getting around the house on one crutch, which leaves a hand free for pouring tea or emptying the dishwasher. I can pull on my own compression socks and cut my toenails and drive downtown. Best of all, I can press up from all fours into a downward-facing dog.

What I didn’t expect yesterday, as I spread my palms wide on my yoga mat and lifted my tailbone to the sky, were the tears. Moving from crutches into my first post-op yoga pose was a bit like coming home after a long journey to another land. Things are the same, but different. After twenty years of yoga practice, I arrive on my mat a beginner again, feeling my way forward tenderly. These two prosthetic hips? They are my new teachers. And I am a willing, humbled student.

There have been so many times over the last two years, when I found myself thinking, “I want my old life back.” This morning, sitting once again at my writing spot in the kitchen, healing and breathing, I find myself writing different words: “This is my life.” And every moment? Another opportunity to practice. Here, four lessons I’ve learned so far.

Some day your body will surprise you.

No matter what you see on the x-ray, no matter what the lab results show, no matter what the doctor has just diagnosed, no matter what operation you’ve just found out is in your future, one thing is for certain: the disturbing thing going on deep inside your body wasn’t part of your plan. Perhaps we all presume, in our secret hearts, invincibility. I certainly did. But my body has begun to teach me that there’s no special protection from pain, from aging, from death.

The moment my orthopedist flipped the switch on the light box and brought up the ghostly X-ray images of my two arthritic hips was the first time it hit me: I’m not indestructible after all. In fact, I’m not even in charge here. I’d done everything “right” — exercised regularly, eaten well, practiced yoga for years, bought well-cushioned new sneakers every spring. I was pretty sure all that good living was buying me both time and health.

And yet, the pain I’d been believed for months to be a groin pull was suddenly revealed to be something else entirely. And with that my illusions were shattered. [continue…]