Time in a bottle

photospent most of yesterday morning in the kitchen with my son Jack, windows open to the September air.  In ten days he will move to Atlanta to begin his new life there as a student.  But for now, the two of us find ourselves home alone together.  (Henry left last week to return to his alma mater, St. Olaf, where he’s helping out with the fall musical; Steve has been away for a few days on business. And so, it’s just two of us here, a rare mother-son combination that hasn’t happened for years and may not recur any time soon.)

All summer, I have mourned the end of summer.  Back in June, my family laughed at me for regretting the passing of time before the time I’d been anticipating had even arrived.  (Yes, I know, it’s crazy.) The days were still getting longer, they pointed out, and already I was imagining how I would feel when they began to grow shorter.  The lake water was perfect for swimming, and I was wondering how many more swims we would have. A piercing awareness of the preciousness, the transience, of everything is, I suppose, both the blessing and the burden of my temperament. It is also the price my family has to pay for living with me.  I am always reminding them (myself!) to notice, to appreciate, to be aware of all that is and of all we have.

The truth is, I write so much about inhabiting the moment largely to help myself remember that it’s where I want to be: simply present.  My tendency, always, is to live with a lump in my throat.  I experience the pain of endings even as I cherish the tenderness of beginnings.  I allow every joy to be shot through with a thread of sadness.  And I see in all that lives, all that has passed;  in all that is, all that one day will no longer be.

And so  I sit in my garden amidst the wildly blooming nasturtiums and feel the fleetingness of their splendor.  I adore our thirteen-year-old dog all the more for knowing her days are numbered.  (When she placed her head on the bed this morning at 6 am and pleaded for a walk, I swung right into action – because, of course, I can so easily imagine the future, when there will be no need to be out taking a hike at dawn.)  I fill our basement freezer with strawberries and blueberries and raspberries picked at the height of the season because I am always conscious of the season’s inexorable turning.

Hanging out with my soon to be 21-year-old son yesterday, I reminded myself to simply enjoy the moment, without layering on the fact that in a few weeks he’ll be in his own new kitchen a few thousand miles away and we’ll be texting instead of talking. [continue...]

Still hard, and more beautiful than ever

sunrise aug 22JPG

Iwas outside at dawn this morning, as I’ve been most days this summer. Standing in the wet grass, watching the molten, majestic sun slide from behind the mountain into a rose-colored sky, two thoughts occurred to me at exactly the same time: Life is still hard. And it’s more beautiful than ever.

The hard things are easy to list. They’ve been running on an endless loop in my head through every sleepless night this week: An ongoing conversation with my younger son that keeps ending badly. The helplessness of not knowing how to make things better. Worries about the other son as he wraps up a summer job he’s loved and embarks on a new life chapter. A slightly frayed, unraveling edge in my marriage — and not knowing how to mend that, either. The piles of things around the house that I should have cleared away by now and the to-do list that doesn’t ever seem to get any smaller. The familiar, nagging sense that I’m spread too thin, letting too many people down, not doing enough or being enough or giving enough.

Wakefulness takes its own toll, as if exhaustion has peeled off a protective layer, leaving me a little more raw and vulnerable than usual. I am less resilient and resourceful; more prone to sudden, silly tears, frustration, anxiety. I do an interview over the phone, make a birthday dinner for my dad, hand-write a stack of letters, pay the bills, read a bound galley that needs a blurb, call to congratulate a friend who’s just finished writing her book, sort the laundry, sweep the floor. I try again with my son. Take my husband’s hand. Pick flowers for the table and bake scones from scratch. Take a deep breath, and then another. Take a run. Smile at a stranger on the street. These are all good things to do. And yet. My mind feels not quite all here. I’m tired. And it’s still hard.

And beautiful.

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Oprah doesn’t want me anymore

I didn’t think it would hurt, to be rejected by a magazine. But, at age 54, I guess I should have learned that it takes a while to recover from unrequited love.

Apparently, according to the editors at O, I should also have my life figured out by now. I should know exactly who I am and what my work is here on this earth. Those thorny questions about meaning and destiny? “By the time you’re 40 or 42,” said Oprah in last Sunday’s New York Times, “you should have kind of figured that out already.”

Oprah is not happy about the fact that the average age of her reader is 49. Times are tough at the magazine, which has seen a decline in readers and advertisers since her talk show ended eighteen months ago. And it seems I am part of the problem, one of those aging hangers-on who still want to read articles with substance and depth about women’s health, finances, spirituality and personal fulfillment. Enough already!

At 58, Oprah is looking around at the rest of us (late) middle-aged women, the ones who came of age seeking and searching right along with her, and wishing we would quietly go away. She wants, she says, to attract women in “their 30s or perhaps 20s, to be able to reach people when they are looking to fulfill their destiny.”

So, I’ve let my mom know she doesn’t need to renew my Oprah subscription for Christmas this year. I’ve been faithful, a devoted fan of the magazine since its very first issue. (In fact, I wrote a few articles and essays for O in the early years, and have never missed an issue since.) But Oprah’s not one for sentiment, and now she wants to make sure we all get the message: it’s not really a relationship. “Ultimately,” she told the Times, “you have to make money, because you are a business.”

I get that. But still, in an unexpected way, it was painful to learn that my age makes me not only invisible but undesirable. And I’m certainly not going to moon around where I’m no longer wanted or appreciated for who I am: a woman who is still unfinished, still growing and changing, still asking big questions, still seeking and searching and reading.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. My friends and I may not look like a sexy demographic to the powers that be at O, but I think we are quite an interesting bunch. As I consider the women I know, I see a remarkable span of challenges and possibilities, from divorce, illness, and financial crises to new careers, revived passions, and ambitious creative endeavors. From thrilling new romantic relationships to adult children in need of support and elderly parents in need of care. From a new ability to say “no” to unwanted demands to renewed commitments to community service, friendships, and family.

My female friends in their forties and fifties are running companies, writing books, going on pilgrimages, passing the bar exam, recovering from a husband’s sudden death, taking up the cello, selling the family home, taking painting lessons, dealing with chronic illness, volunteering in a community garden, running marathons, taking religious vows. We are also making dinner, experimenting with new wrinkle creams, walking the dog, doing the laundry, going to yoga class, buying groceries and winter coats, reading books.

And what we all have in common is that the changes of midlife have invited or compelled each and every one of us to reinvent ourselves, to ask those “Who am I?” and “What now?” questions all over again, with just as much urgency and wonder as we brought to them in our twenties and thirties.

The difference is that we know now, in a way we couldn’t have possibly understood then, that time isn’t infinite. We’ve watched friends die, seen neatly ordered lives shattered by loss, close-knit families come unraveled, careers upended in a day. Knowing that my own steps are numbered, that whole chapters of my life have ended, that I’ve already lived more days than I have left ahead of me, I sometimes feel as if everything is up for re-examination, as if all my choices matter more. And yet, I still yearn to find my own true path and walk it –if anything, even more thoughtfully and deliberately than before.

Which makes me think maybe Oprah’s right after all. “You’re never going to run out of people who are looking for a more joyful life,” she says. And that is true. But I’ve also learned that life is complex, joy is fleeting, and there are no easy solutions. “Living my best life” these days is as much about being as doing, more about acceptance than pursuit, more about expressing gratitude for what is than about grasping for more. So perhaps I also need to acknowledge that the inspiration I’m looking for now probably isn’t going to be found in the pages of a slick women’s magazine fat with ad pages and geared to thirty-year olds. Maybe, Oprah, I’ve outgrown you, too.

 

Thanksgiving

Tomorrow night, for the first time in months, both our boys will be home, everyone sleeping in their own beds under one roof.

And on Thursday afternoon we will gather round the table at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner with the whole extended family. For well over forty years, with barely a miss, I’ve spent Thanksgiving in that very same kitchen, have eaten my dad’s grilled turkey and homemade ice cream, my mom’s pumpkin pie and peas and mashed potatoes. The cast of characters around the table has changed over time, of course. Various cousins and aunts and uncles and significant others and spouses have made entrances and exits. Dear loved ones have passed on and dear little ones have been born and grown up. And, along the way, each one of us has created our own enduring memories: brisk walks in the woods; skating on the pond (long, long ago, when there was ice in November); a fiance’s first appearance at the table; a grandfather’s final one; a grandmother’s last apple pie; a baby who is suddenly grown-up enough to sit with the adults; a sullen teenager miraculously transformed into a mature and engaging young man; an aunt and uncle determined to make a trip all the way from Florida so as not to miss dinner.

What’s been constant however, through all those decades, through all those comings and goings and births and deaths, is the house that somehow contains us all, the stories that get retold year after year as the plates are passed, and the presence in that house of my parents who, even as they’re rounding the corner toward eighty, still manage to make a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings look effortless.

Each year, when my mother gets out her old gravy-stained notebook and begins her Thanksgiving countdown (pretty much the same to-do list, whether there are going to be 8 of us at the table or 38, as there occasionally were in the old days), she pulls out the crayoned drawing my cousin Paul made thirty-five years ago, when he was seven, the one that says: “I love going to the Thanksgiving house.” My mom cherishes that faded picture; she always sticks it up on the refrigerator, where she can see it as she cooks. And then, three days before we all show up for dinner, she gets busy, shopping for groceries, making stock, setting the table, brining the bird.

My parents are the keepers of the sugar and creamer set shaped like turkeys (which always sort of grossed out my Uncle Chet, who didn’t like to see his cream pouring out of a ceramic gobbler). They have the ice cream maker, the pie servers, the turkey platter, the covered dishes, the baster and twine, the big cutting board and carving set, plenty of dishes and silverware to go around. The tried-and-true recipes, annotated for crowds. The notes my mom has kept, religiously, about who came to dinner and what was said and who was missed this year.

Even after all this time, my mother and father are happy to put the meal on the table for the rest of us – grown children, spouses, grandchildren, and assorted invited guests. All we have to do is show up and appreciate the gifts they gladly offer — not only the food but, even more important, a spacious day of togetherness. And so it happens that once again this week, my family will come together in the house that has always been home base for all of us. At the same time I can’t help but think: It will not always be so.

At 54 years of age, I have yet to cook a turkey myself. Somehow, thanks to my mom’s dedicated service in the Thanksgiving house decade after decade, it’s a rite of passage I’ve managed to avoid. But the day will arrive when the baster will need to be passed. I think I’m going to take myself out of the running. Henry is going over to his grandmother’s house tomorrow afternoon to give her a hand with the potatoes and the squash. He knows the drill, and I have a feeling he would be honored to inherit my mom’s Thanksgiving notebook when the time comes.

For now, though, I don’t want to contemplate the future, but to fully immerse myself in the present. Two grown sons both at home tomorrow night. A couple of too-short days of togetherness. Time set aside to slow down and take stock of all that is good. For gratitude, as we all know, is not a given but rather a way of being to be cultivated. It doesn’t come packaged like the Stouffer’s stuffing mix nor is it ensured by the name of the holiday. No, real “thanksgiving” requires us to pause long enough to feel the earth beneath our feet, to gaze up into the spaciousness of the sky above, and to stop and take a good, long, loving look at the precious faces sitting across from us at the dinner table.

Life can turn on a dime. Not one of us knows, ever, what fate has in store, or what challenges await just around the bend. But I do know this: nothing lasts. Life is an interplay of light and shadow, blessings and losses, moments to be endured and moments I would give anything to live again. I will never get them back, of course, can never re-do the moments I missed or the ones I still regret, any more than I can recapture the moments I desperately wanted to hold onto forever. I can only remind myself to stay awake, to pay attention, and to say my prayer of thanks for the only thing that really matters: this life, here, now.

I’d love to know: What are you grateful for today, here, now?

Friends: My new book Magical Journey will be in the stores in early January — just weeks away. In the meantime, I’ll post all the news, including where I’ll be and when, on my new Author page on Facebook. I would love it if you’d “LIKE” me there: http://www.facebook.com/kkenisonbooks

And of course pre-orders are ALWAYS appreciated. Order now, and have a book on your doorstep on January 8.

I Want to Remember

I want to remember waking from the soft flannel nest of sleep beside my husband, pulling on warm clothes and stepping outside in the dark in time to see the day begin.

I want to remember the holy hush just before dawn, the mists rising out of the valley, the sharp, clear sky still pricked by the bright eye of Venus. I want to remember the way light returns slowly to this earth, taking its time. How it arrives at last from behind a curtain of rose and purple clouds. How glad I am to be here.

I want to remember the sudden uprise of Canada geese bursting through the silence, honking and flapping and lifting into to the sky, oblivious to our astonishment. I want to remember their wild call as they jockeyed into a ragged V before shearing off through the clear veil of morning. The way my husband and I smiled at each other, silent, as we watched them go.

I want to remember the cold smell of Gracies’s coat when I bury my face in her neck, her silky hair so dry it fairly crackles. She is twelve. I want to remember everything.

I want to remember the September woods. The rich, smoky, earthy smells of nature concluding a season’s business. I want to remember the great buttery clumps of mushrooms, such fecund, untouchable bounty. And when, exactly, did the pliant maple leaves grow brittle and thin enough to see through? How subtle was the moment when summer’s green palette was exchanged for the golden hues of fall? I want to remember the exquisite turning of this page, as the blue-green hills I’ve gazed upon all summer begin now to glow with color. I want to remember this: Don’t blink. Every hour the scene repaints itself. We are heading toward brilliance, fleeting and irrepressible.

I want to remember the nasturtiums, how they came up everywhere this year, tumbling through the garden like handfuls of jewels, tossed and scattered with wild abandon. I want to remember the shy orange poppies; all summer they held back, only to bloom now at the end of September, long after I’d given up all hope of them. I want to remember the greedy, glorious, rampant pink and violet petunias, spilling out of their pots, cascading over the steps, taking advantage of every barren crack in the walkway. I want to remember the hummingbird that comes each afternoon to drink their depths. I want to remember these days before frost lays claim to every cherished, fragile blossom.

I want to remember the industriousness of bees, the hum in the garden. I want to remember the slow undulation of a Monarch’s wings as it sips from a pink zinnia. I want to remember the robin splashing like a hedonist in the birdbath beneath a stand of exhausted sunflowers, their drooping, heavy heads plucked clean of seed. (I should cut them down, haul those useless stalks to the compost pile.) I want to remember how reluctant I am to see anything come to an end, and how even now I leave the dead flowers standing standing there, patiently waiting for me to summon resolve.

I want to remember the last breakfast on the screened porch, the penultimate bouquets, the hydrangeas drying on their curved stems, the end of peaches, the first Macouns from the trees up the road, the puckery sweetness of a Concord grape splitting on the tongue.

I want to remember Henry’s oatmeal cookies and the rich buttery smells in the kitchen, Diana Krall singing “Love Me or Leave Me” as he washes dishes at the sink. I want to remember how good it is to have a son come home.

I want to remember my favorite sandwiches, made without bread: sliced Brandywine tomatoes and white mozzarella ovals and basil leaves still warm from the sun. I want to remember the briny grit of sea salt, and juice dripping off my elbows, and not minding.

I want to remember dozing in the lawn chair with a book in my lap, as the first yellow leaves spin to earth. I want to remember days with windows wide open, and the way cold seeps through the house as soon as the sun disappears behind the trees. I want to remember Henry practicing Rachmaninoff. I want to remember lighting candles at dinner again, and how it feels to live in one place for five years, to feel one’s own roots sinking into the earth. I want to remember that change is part of being alive. I want to remember to take time to sit in silence, to breathe into the still point, where past and future are gathered. I want to remember some lines by T.S. Eliot:

Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
there would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.

I want to remember that in the week before I turn 54, I am vexed by a private catalog of imponderables. I want to remember that even these most perfect days and nights have been limned with sadness, punctuated by sleepless hours, a host of worries, questions without answers. I want to remember that sometimes I can set my troubles aside, choose instead to see my life as a blessing. I want to remember that surrender is always possible, and that I can be sad and grateful at the same time. Filled up and emptied out, both. Even a heavy heart can overflow with contentment. I want to remember to keep my eyes open, to pay attention. Life is short. I want to remember: this is it. There is only the dance.

Tell me, what do you want to remember?

(I write today inspired by my friend Lindsey’s poignant post on this theme at A Design so Vast. Thank you Lindsey!)