Summer Reading — Don’t Miss This

The toes in the hammock are a good sign. They mean I’ve remembered, for today anyway, that I already have enough. Enough time to rest, to play, to reconnect with my own idle, dreamy, summer-child self. They mean that, at least for today, I know this: my challenge is not to chase a perfect life, but rather to pause long enough to appreciate a perfect moment. Toes in the hammock mean that, just for today, I am choosing not to be overworked or overwhelmed or overcommitted. Today, some things are going undone. Not all expectations will be met, not all emails will be answered, and dinner will consist of the leftovers in the fridge. Instead of typing words on a screen or staring down a to-do list, or giving more than I can graciously afford to offer, I’m taking a break. I’m lying on my back under a tree, reading a book cover to cover, allowing my heart to fill and overflow with poetry, my soul to be nourished by the words of a kindred spirit.

I ordered Jena Strong’s first collection of poems, Don’t Miss This, a few weeks ago, just as soon as I read my friend Lindsey’s passionately enthusiastic review. Although I am a serial reader of memoir, it’s been a while since I allowed a new poet to enter my life. I’m a loyal re-reader of the poets I love, more likely to return to my handful of old favorites – Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Danna Faulds, Donald Hall, and Stanley Kunitz – than to tune my ear to a new voice, no matter how heralded.

But Jena’s book drew me immediately, in part because it is a memoir in poetry, a collection in which each poem stands fully and beautifully on its own while, at the same time, adding another strand to a story that I can’t imagine being told in any other way. As Jena explains, “The poems here trace a journey – to some extent in real time – through marriage, motherhood, sexual awakening, separation, and healing.”

I was startled, when I opened the book at random the day it arrived and began to read, to find myself in tears. Startled to feel such a powerful connection to this woman whose life path is so different from mine — who is so much younger than I am, and who is in the throes of mothering two small daughters, claiming her sexuality, coming out, and creating new relationships even as she struggles, with great care and compassion, to protect and honor the sanctity of old ones.

This, at a glance, is not the story of my life. And yet, it seemed as if every poem I read revealed to me something that is absolutely the story of my life. And what took my breath away was not the superficial details that separate me from this gifted young poet, but the slow, undeniable revelation of all that connects us: the intensity of emotion, the longing for self-acceptance, the faith that guides our steps and the sense of mystery that astonishes and humbles us as we make our slow, halting way forward. The love for our children, our spouses and partners and friends, and finally, for our own vulnerable, imperfect selves. The sustenance of seeing the sacred in the ordinary, the soul work of cultivating gratitude for a life that is not at all the one that was planned but that is, instead, the one we are meant to live. The courage to share a personal struggle, in the belief that it is only by revealing our cracks and fissures that we grow up spiritually, into our own true selves, at last.

To read this small, exquisitely written book and do it justice, I knew I needed to clear space. I needed to leave my cell phone on the kitchen counter, my work on my desk, the dishes in the sink. I needed to lie in the hammock beneath a vast, all-encompassing summer sky and allow myself the necessary luxury of deep reading. I have taken Jena’s title as a directive: don’t miss this. And so, today has been a first-page to last-page day, a vacation day right in the midst of everything, a gift to myself of time and poetry, beauty and kinship, summer air and chosen silence.

May you clear an essential space in your own life during this final month of summer and sink right down deep into something nourishing and good, something that feeds your soul. Take a chair outside, put your feet up, read a book that gives you back to yourself. Don’t miss this.

>SUMMER READING!

Last week, I gave away copies of Mary Oliver’s Collected Poems, Volumes One & Two. In the spirit of summer reading, and because I so enjoy sharing books I love, I’ve decided to give away a book each week during the month of August.

Jena’s book is available to purchase here. (And her lovely blog,about “waking up, making the coffee, and seeing what happens” is here.)

To be eligible to win a signed copy of Don’t Miss This, just leave a comment below, and tell me what YOU are reading this summer. I’ll draw a winner at random on Tuesday, August 7.

In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to share one of Jena’s poems, one I’ve read every day since the book arrived. (As I said, I am a devoted re-reader of poetry that speaks to me.) And if you’d like to read more about Don’t Miss This, click HERE to read Pamela Hunt Cloyd’s beautifully nuanced review.

What If?

What if you knew
that everything was going to be okay,
that something was in motion
beyond your field of vision,
beyond even the periphery
of your knowing?

What if you knew
that everything you want,
everything you’ve been seeking,
trying to figure out, missing,
is right here, already whole
in your hands, in your life?

What if taking in what is
could satisfy your longing?
What if you could rest your frantic, racing, busy mind
and rest your neglected, tired body,
put your head down in someone’s lap
to have your hair stroked,
like a cat, or a child?

What if you didn’t need to understand
how it works,
but could enjoy the magic
of how love shows itself
in the most unexpected, simplest of gestures?
What if everything is just as it should be?

What if nothing had to be better,
bigger, different, or other?
What would you do then?
Who would you be?

JIMMY FUND MARATHON WALK UPDATE:

My training is underway for my 26.2 mile walk on September 9, in memory of my friend Diane. I’ve taken a few 8-mile walks, am picking up the pace, and am feeling the soles of my feet growing tougher, my legs growing stronger by the day.

To read more about my reasons for making this walk, click HERE.

Click HERE to make a donation on my personal fundraising page.

And to all of you who have already supported me in this effort, my heartfelt thanks!

Walking to remember

Turning the calendar page to August is always a little hard for me. There is no denying that we’re entering the final weeks of summer, that the days are growing shorter, that there’s more dead-heading going on in the garden than new growth, that the sun at twilight seems more fragile somehow, less robust than the relentless blast of July. I begin to mark time: the end of raspberry season, the passing of peaches, the crickets’ first evening symphony, spikes of goldenrod appearing alongside the road.

For me, too, August will forever be remembered as the month when I had to begin saying good-bye to my friend Diane. Two summers ago, as we sat on her patio and drank iced tea and talked for hours, I couldn’t quite imagine the world without her in it.

This, of course, is what grief is all about. We become familiar with the unimaginable and, in the process, we are made profoundly aware of the fragility of our own ordinary days. We learn firsthand that sorrow and loss are part of being human. That hearts can break and then, slowly, begin to mend. That out of deep sadness can come goodness. And, finally, that with each act of kindness and compassion, with each gesture we make in the memory of our loved one, we bring healing not only to ourselves but out into the world as well.

Last September, I completed my first Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk. I walked the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston because I believed it was the best way to honor my dear friend – by carrying forward the work she believed in so passionately.

Diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer at age 51, Diane made two choices: to respond to her disease with aggressive treatment and to fully embrace the simple pleasures of her everyday life. Under the cutting-edge care of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, she was able to do both for nearly four years.

During that time, she also worked tirelessly to support ovarian cancer research, completing three Jimmy Fund walks even while undergoing treatment herself, participating in several clinical trials, and raising thousands of dollars.

As Diane’s husband David recalled, “She was animated by a desire to live for the things that mattered to her most – mothering, friendships, and giving back. She experimented with clinical trials that had very little prospect of advancing her situation, but gave generously to potentially advance the science.”

That was Diane – determined, always, to find meaning and purpose in the time she had, even as her disease chipped away at so much of what she loved. As her own journey came to and end, Diane made another decision. She asked that those who wished to remember her do so by carrying on in her footsteps. More than anything, she hoped that more effective treatments and earlier detection might make other women’s prognoses better than her own.

Team Diane was formed in response to that wish. Walking together last year, this small group of Diane’s close friends raised over $35,000 for her cause.

It was a great achievement, made possible in part by your generous donations to my walk. What touched me most of all last year was the realization that it made no difference at all that most readers of my blog didn’t know Diane personally.

What mattered much more was the fact that there is barely a soul among us whose life has not been touched by cancer. We have all lost someone or supported a loved one through dark hours. And so, far flung as we may be, we do share a common goal and a deep sense of connection. Whether we are called to walk, or to open our hearts and pocketbooks in support of those who walk, we are all partners in this work. And together we DO make a difference.

I am proud to walk again this year. Team Diane has mobilized with renewed commitment — we hope to meet or exceed last year’s total on September 9. Best of all: all monies raised will go directly to Diane’s Fund, established this spring by the Brewster family to support ovarian cancer research under the direction of Diane’s Dana Farber oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis.

This week, I began training in earnest for the 26-mile trek on September 9. As I walk the country roads around my home in New Hampshire, I carry my friend in my heart, knowing that in some way she is accompanying me with every step, urging me on. But this year, I also have a sense of just how vast this network of love and hope and connection really is. I may walk alone, but I know now that I’m also part of something that is bigger, and far more powerful, than any one of us.

If you supported me last year and wish to do so again, I’d be most grateful. And to all of you who are new to this space, please know that there is no pressure here, but rather an invitation to join me in an effort that means a great deal to me personally — and that will surely touch each of our lives at some point. (According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012 alone more than 22,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This deadliest of all gynecologic cancers will claim more than 15,000 lives this year.)

Diane and I shared a love of Mary Oliver’s poetry, and of one poem in particular, “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines, a prescient reminder that life is both fleeting and inexpressibly lovely.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, because I think it would please my friend, I’d love to share our favorite poet with you. If you do donate below, leave a comment and let me know. I will select at random one winner on Wednesday, August 1, to receive Volumes One and Two of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems.

Thanks so much for your support!

Here’s how to help:

**To make a quick and easy tax-deductible contribution to my walk on Sept. 9, CLICK HERE.

**If you prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk, and write “DIANE’S FUND” in the memo line. Then mail it to me, Katrina Kenison, at 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

**Widen the circle by sharing this post with your friends, on your Facebook page, and on Twitter.

To read more about the cutting edge research being carried out by Dr. Matulonis and her team at Dana Farber, CLICK HERE.

Reconnecting

Have you ever fallen out of touch with a good friend? You’d really like to call; you miss her. But with every day that passes, it seems harder to reach out. So much time has passed and so much has happened. You wonder, Is it too late to reweave the threads of intimacy? Catching up can be harder than staying close.

The weeks go by, the months, the years, perhaps. More change, more water under the bridge. The life you’re living now isn’t the same one you shared all those yesterdays ago, back when you and your friend knew all the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of each other’s days. Where to start?

That’s the question I’m asking myself this morning as I sit propped up in bed, with my laptop on my knees. Where to start?

For two and a half years, I wrote here each and every week. What began as a way to publicize my book The Gift of an Ordinary Day very quickly became a treasured two-way conversation with you – readers, kindred spirits, new friends. A conversation in which I’ve most certainly received more than I gave.

I posted a weekly reflection for you, and you wrote back, sharing your lives with me. You generously offered wisdom, gratitude, advice, book recommendations, and, most of all, connection. After a while, I couldn’t imagine NOT showing up each week to write these essays. My commitment to myself had transformed into something else altogether: a commitment to a vast web of relationships I’ve come to treasure.

But, I haven’t been a great friend to this blog of late. Months have passed, and my posts have been sporadic. I’ve missed our weekly conversation. At the same time, it’s felt as if time itself has picked up speed. The truth is, I’ve found it hard even to be present for my family, let alone to claim a few quiet hours to sit down and gather my thoughts onto a page.

Not long ago I wrote in an email to a friend that I’ve been humbled, over the last six months or so, both by what life demands of me and by what it offers. A challenge at every turn, it seems. And yet, too, gifts of extraordinary beauty. Lately, it’s been difficult for me to accept those gifts with open hands because I’ve been so consumed by the challenges.

I had a book deadline to meet, and then to meet again, and yet again after that. (There was the deadline for the first draft, back in April; the deadline for revisions in June; and finally, just four days ago, the Big One, for returning the final, copyedited manuscript to the publisher.) I made it. But not easily, and only by leaving much else undone.

At the same time, I’ve been called upon to help loved ones going through unexpected hardships. Caring for a dear friend through a life-threatening health crisis has been both challenging and fulfilling, certainly an opportunity to learn and grow. Trying to figure out how to help our son Jack recover from two debilitating stress fractures in his spine is part of my job as his mom these days. (It probably goes without saying that nineteen-year-old boys in chronic pain are not the easiest creatures to live with.) These last months have been about doctor visits, MRIs and CAT scans, trips to specialists and herbalists, lots of research, blender smoothies and Chinese remedies. Not anyone’s choice; just the way it is right now.

And yet, even in the midst of deadlines and obligations that have felt overwhelming at times, there have been gifts to treasure: A day in spring when all the peonies and irises and lupines bloomed in the garden at the same time. Sitting in the audience with my husband as our son Henry played keyboard for a production of The Music Man on Cape Cod. Relaxing by a fire on our hilltop with Steve and an old friend as 4th of July fireworks filled the night sky. Rounding a corner and seeing this glorious ancient beech tree, its branches aglow with late afternoon light, while on a walk near my friend Margaret’s house.

The demands of my life, I realize, are here to stay. They may shift and change, as what’s urgent one week is supplanted the next by some new need or obligation or crisis. But there’s no such thing as smooth sailing, or an empty road, or a clean slate. Real life is stormy, bumpy, complicated. Perhaps my real challenge is not about ducking my head and leaning into a task with single-minded focus until it’s done (it may never be done!), but about remembering to stop once in a while, to look up, open my hands, and accept the gifts that my life offers me right alongside the challenges.

Already, I sense summer slipping toward fall. The drought in New England has given our thirsty landscape the brittleness of autumn two months early. Time marches on relentlessly, but I don’t have to. I can pause whenever I want to. I can take a deep breath, and decide where I want to place my attention in this moment.

Looking at my calendar, my to-do list, the stack of unsorted mail on the desk, I can allow anxiety to have its way with me. Or, I can choose instead to see a bigger picture, the abundance of my life just as it is.

On this early morning, it feels good to be back here, catching up with you. I have a new book coming out in January. (More on that soon!) I’ve just committed to walking The Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk again this September, in memory of my friend Diane. (More on that soon, too, but first I better put on my sneakers and start training!) I have a stack of unread books by my bed. (I’m eager to share them with you.)

Meanwhile, I am making a commitment to myself for these next few weeks of summer: To meet life’s demands as they arise, but to gratefully accept its gifts as well. I intend to take a swim in the lake, read a book in the hammock, wander through town with an ice cream cone.

And I’m going to stay in closer touch. Because taking time to catch up with a friend is absolutely worth the effort — in fact, it’s really a gift we give to ourselves.

So my friends, hello. It’s good to be back. And I wonder: What has your life been demanding of you this summer? What has it offered?

A Birthday About Giving Back: The Gifts are for YOU

It’s the one part of the publishing process that I truly dread: sending my unedited, ink-just-barely-dry-on-the-page manuscript out into the world. Well, not quite into the world, but to a small handful of fellow writers, in the hope that a couple of them will agree not only to read it, but to also say something kind enough to be emblazoned across a book jacket.

Having been on both sides of the advance-blurb hustle, I know it can be just as awkward to be asked to read an unpublished manuscript as it is to be the hapless author down on one knee, apologizing in advance for having to make such a request.

So there I was two weeks ago, staring at a list of my dearest literary friends, steeling my myself to ask a few of them if they might be willing to set aside their own work in order to look at mine, when suddenly, a vaguely familiar name popped up in my e-mail box. I recognized Priscilla Warner as the author of Learning to Breathe, a best-selling memoir that, oh, at least five or six trustworthy people over the course of the last year had told me that I absolutely “must read.” “You two have so much in common,” one friend insisted. “You will really love this woman; you’re kindred spirits.”

I was definitely curious. But at the time I was also enmeshed in a daily struggle to write my own memoir. And the last thing I could afford to do was derail my halting, sporadic progress by taking a detour into someone else’s account of a midlife search for peace and equanimity. Now, out of the blue, here was Priscilla herself, writing a comment on my blog post about my son Henry’s college graduation. “Thank you for opening your heart,” she wrote, “and showing me what’s in mine.”

I read Priscilla’s beautiful words, immediately ordered her book at long last, and then wrote her back to let her know. It was a quiet early morning, and the two of us both happened to be sitting at our computers. Within moments the e-mails were flying back and forth. And it wasn’t long before we were hatching a plan to meet in person later this summer.

“But,” as Priscilla wrote, “our souls have already connected.” It was true. She was a perfect stranger, and yet within the space of an hour we had become fast friends. I felt as if I could tell her anything; no, I didn’t even have to. It was as if she already knew.

As we shared more of our stories – the challenges of children growing up and leaving home, the questions that haunt us both as old identities fall away and new ones are slow to take shape, the nostalgia we both feel for moments lived and the uncertainty about what lies ahead – it became clear that the universe had just handed both of us a pretty amazing gift: each other.

And suddenly, what had been an embarrassing chore on my to-do list an hour before was transformed into something else altogether – an opportunity to deepen our connection. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to ask Priscilla if she’d be willing to read my manuscript. And her swift response — “Yes, yes, yes. I need it immediately!” – swept away the queasy sense of dread I’d been feeling all morning.

Last week, my son Jack had surgery for a deviated septum. An emergency at the hospital meant that an out-patient procedure meant to take about four hours kept us there for over eight instead. It wasn’t all that comfortable for Jack, laid out in a narrow bed with an IV in his arm, waiting for the surgeon to show up. But I have to confess, I didn’t mind the wait at all. In fact, it felt like a luxury; I had Priscilla’s funny, courageous, exquisitely written book in my hands, and a whole day to sit in a chair and read it.

It wasn’t long before I found myself scribbling notes on the back cover, keeping a list of all the small yet truly remarkable coincidences that made me feel even more certain that destiny had caused our paths to cross at precisely the right moment. (“Shivers,” I texted her once, from my seat in the waiting room. “Shivers, indeed!” she typed back.)

A few years ago, after a lifetime of anxiety and panic attacks, Priscilla set out to meet her demons head on. Her year-long quest “to bring calm to my life,” as she says in her subtitle, led her far from her comfort zone and into experiences and encounters that changed not only her brain chemistry but her entire outlook on life. Slowly, her racing heart quieted. It grew lighter, more tender, buoyed by faith and enlarged by compassion. By the end of my long day of reading, I had wept and laughed and discovered much about our human capacity for change and growth, no matter how old we are or how complex our histories may be.

I put the book down every once in a while, but only to practice what I was learning in its pages: to breathe more deeply and with more awareness, to be grateful for what is, to honor the great luxury that is life itself.

By the time the doctor finally arrived to tell me Jack was coming out of anesthesia, I felt that my own heart had grown a bit, too. I went in and kissed my son’s dear, swollen face. When the nurses apologized for the long delay, I assured them that I’d had a wonderful day. And I had, thanks to an extraordinary book by an extraordinary woman. I couldn’t wait to get home and write her a proper note, to thank her for sharing her life with me, both on the page and through the ether.

Given the generosity of Priscilla’s spirit, it didn’t surprise me at all to receive an invitation to her Blog Birthday Party – a party she’s throwing right here online, and that is all about giving rather than receiving. That’s right, the gifts are from her to you!

To celebrate her 59th birthday, Priscilla is hosting a birthday giveaway on her blog, and the presents are some of her favorite things, talismans from her journey from panic to peace: one of her Buddha bracelets, a beautiful Tibetan singing bowl, her favorite candle, some Nirvana Belgian chocolate, and a CD by Belleruth Naparstek (her guided imagery guru).

And there are more gifts, too, from some of Priscilla’s blogging friends to all of our readers. (We really want you all to meet one another!). So, in the spirit of the day, and to celebrate this wonderful new friendship in my life, I am offering two signed copies of Learning to Breathe right here on my site, along with two signed copies of my book The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

Here’s what you do:
1. Leave a comment here, to be eligible to win Learning to Breathe along with The Gift of an Ordinary Day. (Two winners will be drawn at random after midnight on Sunday, July 1.)

2. Then click to Priscilla’s blog and wish her a happy birthday, to be eligible to win any of the lovely gifts described above.

3. And then pay a visit to all the other party guests (see the links over at Priscilla’s place), and leave comments in order to win gifts they are each offering as well.

Lots of new friends to be made here, special presents from a special person, wonderful books to read and to give, and a joyous celebration of another year of life and love.

Happy Birthday to you, Priscilla, and thank you my friend for hosting such a glorious event! May all your birthday wishes come true!

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!)