Gifts

IMG_5409It is still dark as I type these words, though I’ve been awake for hours on this snow-hushed morning of the year’s shortest day.

Soon, I will turn lights on, brew coffee, let the dog out, confront the pile of unwrapped Christmas gifts in the basement. But here in the shadowed quiet before dawn, I’m thinking of gifts that aren’t wrapped and placed under a tree. Gifts that are hidden within each of us, waiting to be brought forth and shared with the world.

This week, to celebrate Henry’s birthday, our family went to see the dark, dazzling revival of “Pippin” at the American Repertory Theatre in Harvard Square. “How far will you go to be extraordinary?” the show’s narrator asks Pippin, an aimless young man with oversized hopes and dreams who’s desperate to find his “corner of the sky.” Will he choose a life that’s mundane and ordinary, or sacrifice all in exchange for one blazing moment of glory?

Last night, we went to another production, right here in our home town: an abridged version of the medieval Shepherd’s Play, performed in a church hall by members of our local life-sharing communities, men and women whose mental and physical challenges require special care in special homes devoted to their well-being.

Rehearsals for each of these performances began months ago. All fall, the actors in each committed themselves to the work of learning lines and music, preparing for their roles. And then, when the moment came to shine, each and every one of them got up on stage, took a long deep breath, and offered everything they had to give.

In the case of “Pippin”: death-defying, gasp-inducing acrobatics; soaring, searing interpretations of the killer Stephen Schwartz score, and a faithful recreation of Bob Fosse’s dazzling original choreography. Thrilling moments of pure, over-the-top theatrical magic and stripped-bare moments of aching, human vulnerability.

And at The Shepherd’s Play: simple lines painstakingly recited (with some unobtrusive support from unflappable volunteers and patient staff members), age-old songs and exuberant comic bits, a few inevitable stumbles and a few unexpected onstage tears. And, yes, here too, thrilling moments of theatrical magic and stripped-bare moments of aching, human vulnerability.

In the plush theatre, my eyes filled as a young Broadway star sang an exquisite love song to the older woman who finally cracks open his heart. And in the dusty church hall, I wept again, as a stout, shy young Mary hesitantly lifted her arms in silent rapture to receive the divine touch of an awkward, determined angel Gabriel, a Gabriel whose hair stuck up and whose mouth was a little odd and whose words were a little garbled, and whose white tunic didn’t quite fit his gawky frame.

At the end of both of these plays, the audiences leapt to their feet. The ovations were long and heartfelt and joy-filled– our grateful human response to gifts shared openly, offered in good faith and with nothing held back.

There is, of course, no way to compare these two productions, the extravagant New York- bound musical and the humble small-town pageant. One is not “better” than the other; they are both special, both worthy, both performed with all the love and courage their players had to offer. I wouldn’t have missed either of them.

And side by side, they have set me to thinking. All year, I’ve been squirreling presents away in closets; yesterday, I was out in the stores, buying yet a few more. But today, as I wrap these gifts and put them under the tree, I realize how quick I am to judge my own gifts and find them wanting.

I love finding the perfect something for a friend, surprising a loved one with just the “right” treasure, taking time to spend with those near and dear, answering letters from strangers. I take deep satisfaction in sharing the books I love, the food I prepare, the seats at our dinner table, the hours in my day, the freshly made bed in the guest room.

Yet, I am much less sure when it comes to sharing the gift of myself. Looking at my schedule of bookstore visits and public appearances in January and February, my stomach clenches into a tight little knot. Can I really go out and do all that? Will I disappoint readers who expect more from me than I can possibly deliver? Do people understand that, just because I’ve written a book about growing older, I don’t actually have all that much figured out? That I’m still grappling myself with losses and changes and questions that leave me at a loss for answers?

At the end of his two and a half hour search for fulfillment, Pippin discovers that his own “corner of the sky” isn’t fame or fortune after all, but the place in his heart that’s filled with love for others. His search ends not with a blaze of glory, but with acceptance of his own ordinary, un-glorious and imperfect but truly compassionate self. He chooses a life that’s authentic and meaningful to him, rather than a flashy trick to impress an audience.

The message hit home. As I watch my own two sons at twenty and twenty-three, each struggling in their own way to make sense of their inchoate hopes and dreams, each wondering what mark they’ll leave on the world, I do know what they cannot possibly have learned yet: it’s the journey itself, not the destination, that matters most.

Only time and hard-won experience can teach them this lesson, that the more truth they are willing to risk along the way, the more courageously they are willing to give of themselves, the more they will have to offer. And, of course, each time they do step forward and bring their own humble gifts into the world, the more they will receive in return.

Perhaps that’s exactly the reminder I need myself at this vulnerable moment before my new book arrives in bookstores. And perhaps this is my task for now: to remember that my job over these next few months isn’t to judge the worthiness of my gift, but to find the courage to show up and offer it.

For what, after all, do any of us really want from one another? Certainly it is not more stuff. Nor is it perfection or fool-proof answers or second-hand wisdom. We want more presence, not more presents. And the most valuable gift we have to give is, always, the unvarnished, unadorned truth of who we really are. Joy comes when we are both courageous and generous – brave enough to be who we are, and as generous with the gift of our own flawed, vulnerable, unique selves as we are with the gifts we wrap up in pretty paper and ribbons and bows.

A quick MAGICAL JOURNEY update – and books to give away!

Events: I hope to meet you in 2013! To see where I’ll be and when, visit my events page by CLICKING HERE. (Check back often!)

News: My deep gratitude this week to fellow travelers David Abrams and Beth Kephart, two much-admired writers who graciously share their own gifts by generously celebrating the works of others. I am honored to be featured on their websites.

CLICK HERE for Beth’s. And HERE for David’s.

Finally, it’s not too late to win an advance copy.

  • You can enter to win one of ten that Goodreads is giving away by clicking HERE.
  • And, I have five author copies right here on my desk, waiting to be signed and shared with you. To win, subscribe to my weekly newsletter (if you haven’t already done so), and then leave a comment here. (Any comment at all will do, but feel free to share a gift you’ve given this year, or one you’ve received that touched your heart.) I’ll draw one winner at random each day from December 26-30.

Joy! In the meantime, from my house to yours, warm wishes for a most wonderful holiday. May you both generously give and gratefully receive the precious present of presence!

More on “Love Your Fate” — and books to give away

“Everyone has a story. Mine began in November of 2000 when I thought I’d given birth to the smallest baby ever born.”

So begins Kasey Mathews’ moving memoir Preemie, an account not only of a birth story gone terribly awry but also of a young woman giving birth to herself, learning to love and accept the person she is through the harrowing, humbling process of learning to love and accept her tiny, excruciatingly fragile baby girl, born more than four months premature.

Nearly twenty-three years after my own first pregnancy, I still remember a line from one of the many parenting books I read in preparation for my daunting new role of “mother.” The gist of it was something like this: “In the days after you give birth, you will grieve the death of the idealized baby you have envisioned for nine months. And you will begin to love and accept the real, imperfect, and perfectly beautiful child who has come to you.”

The very idea of grief having any part to play in the miracle of birth was too frightening to contemplate. And the notion that my own baby might be anything less than perfect was the kind of middle-of-the-night anxiety that I tried desperately to avoid. Much better, I was certain, to envision only the best outcomes: an easy delivery, a healthy baby, happiness all around.

But best outcomes are not always ours to call, and sometimes perfection is found not in our idealized images of the way we believe things “ought” to be, but in our fumbling, awkward, valiant efforts to grow up and become the people we are truly meant to be. For of course, before we can deeply love another flawed, imperfect, vulnerable soul, we must first be willing to love ourselves — even if who we are is so much less than who we still aspire to become.

Any woman who has experienced the trauma of giving birth to a premature baby knows just how quickly, and how devastatingly, a life can turn. One day you are choosing paint colors for the nursery, the next you are staring at the ceiling of a hospital emergency room; one minute you are diligently practicing your “hut” breathing, the next you are being prepped for anesthesia; one minute you are envisioning your own beautiful baby at your breast, the next you are swaddled in sterile scrubs, staring down at a pitifully small one-pound creature that looks nothing like the newborn of your dreams but, as Kasey so vividly describes, more like “a potato with tiny arms and legs.”

“I thought if I could figure out why this was happening, I could make it stop,” Kasey writes, describing the confusion she feels as emergency room nurses begin the race to save her unborn baby’s life. She searches for clues, chronicling the past week’s activities: the bath she took, the sushi she ate, a game of paddle tennis. The nurses assure Kasey it’s not her fault that her March baby is coming in November, that it’s nothing she did, nothing she can control.

Finally, I clutched a nurse’s arm. She was walking backwards, facing me, guiding the gurney down the hall. I dug my fingers into her flesh. I needed to know she was real. She looked at me. Her eyes, framed in dark circles, softened. I thought I’d found my sympathetic audience. “You don’t understand,” I said to her in a more coherent, controlled voice. “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.”
She held my gaze for a moment, and I waited. A gold cross swung at the base of her neck.
She continued to look at me. And then she said, “It does now.”

Last week, I wrote here about the momentous challenge inherent in the words “amor fati,” or “love your fate.” Preemie is the courageous account of one woman’s struggle to do just that, to love not only her fate but also the small, desperately vulnerable and miraculously determined little girl who survived against all odds to become her mother’s greatest spiritual teacher.

Kasey Mathews tells deep, painful truths about how it feels when a “perfect” life is jolted by reality. She writes about guilt and failure, shock and shame, loneliness and confusion and loss. And she writes about her own halting journey from darkness into light and from fear toward faith, a journey that surely illuminates our greatest and most universal human task: the work of learning to embrace imperfect beauty, of realizing that a good life is determined not by what happens to us, but by what we choose to make of it. Once again, amor fati.

I first met Kasey just three years ago this week. My own memoir, The Gift of an Ordinary Day had been in the stores for two days, and I was doing my very first book signing at a nearby book shop. There were all of four people in attendance; two of them were blood relations (my mother and my brother), the third was a mother from Jack’s class at school, and the fourth was a lovely woman I’d never seen before. She sat down in a chair near the back and waved to me with a warm smile, as if we were already friends. I thought perhaps she’d wandered in by mistake, so little publicity had been done for this event. But no, it turned out that she was an actual reader; she had in fact come that day to see me. I scrapped my prepared talk, read a couple of chapters, and then sat down to chat a bit with my charitable audience of four.

Kasey introduced herself, and told us she was writing a book. As she shared the story of her daughter’s birth, and of the fear and surrender and hard-won happiness of the last nine years of her family’s life together, I found myself wishing that she would hurry up and finish writing. I wanted to read it, to hear about how Andie persevered and grew, and even more, how her beautiful mom had grown right alongside her. I didn’t doubt for a moment that Kasey had a book in her. Her quiet eloquence confirmed her as a story teller, and her determination to offer hope and support to other women facing challenges of their own would surely carry her across the finish line.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into Kasey and Andie, now a lively twelve year old, outside the grocery store downtown. Although I’ve followed each stage of Preemie’s long labor and triumphant delivery (nothing premature about this birth!) I had missed Kasey’s book publication party, earlier this summer. It was my first opportunity to say “Congratulations!” in person.

“I want to write about your book!” I told her. And with that, she reached into the back seat of her car, grabbed a copy, signed it, and handed it to me.

To win this signed copy of Preemie, along with a signed copy of my very first book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, just leave a comment below. Write about how the words amor fati have resonated in YOUR life. Or, of course, just let me know you’d like to read this special book. I will draw a winner at random on Saturday, September 8. (In the meantime, visit Kasey at http://www.kaseymathews.com/.)

JIMMY FUND MARATHON WALK UPDATE:

I have just a week more to train for my 26.2 mile walk on September 9, in memory of my friend Diane. I’ve listened to a couple of books on Audible.com while walking the New Hampshire countryside. But mostly, these days, I watch the seasons change, and remember my friend, and our talks two summers ago as she thought about the legacy she would leave. It is for her, for these memories, that I will walk next Sunday.

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!

A brief friendship, a lasting memory

Her doctor told her she had, at best, two years to live.  That was nearly twenty-five years ago, when Kathy Rich learned that after a brief remission, her stage four breast cancer had returned.

My friend Jamie Raab knew Kathy and I would hit it off, and she was right.  Last summer, when I went to spend a weekend at Jamie’s country house in upstate New York, she arranged for Kathy to come, too.

The day we spent together was a scorcher; ninety-eight degrees in the shade.  But the heat didn’t stop Kathy from suggesting that we hop in the car and drive over to Rosendale, to walk around at a street festival and hear some music.

I was eyeing the pool, a novel I’d brought along, thinking it was way too hot to move, let alone fight the crowds milling around between a dozen outdoor stages.  But I kept my mouth shut.  Kathy was game, and she was the one with a leg brace, a crutch, a wig, and cancer.

The music was pretty loud and mostly awful, the heat was withering, but the people-watching was exceptional – it was as if we’d stepped back in time, landing smack in the middle of Woodstock Nation.  We wandered slowly, painstakingly, through a sea of tie-dye.  We watched girls in pig-tails and bikinis do amazing things with hula hoops.  We drank lemonade, bought silver earrings, marveled at the displays of peace signs and hemp tote bags and gauzy India Import blouses, just like the ones we’d all worn in high school.  We sought shade.  Kathy never complained, though it was obvious that each step required an effort, that it hurt her to walk, and that the heat was taking a cruel toll.  What she made clear however, without ever having to say so, was that pain was a price she was willing to pay for experience.

Later, back at the house, Kathy and I hung out for a couple of hours, while Jamie went off to buy groceries and pick up another friend at the train. Kathy asked if I’d mind if she took off her wig; on the hottest day of the summer, a thick helmet of someone else’s hair on your head is its own particular form of torture.  When she came out of the bathroom a few minutes later in her bathing suit, she’d removed both the wig and the brace.  She seemed a lot more comfortable.  And heartbreakingly vulnerable.  Tiny, pale, completely bald, with enormous dark eyes and a dazzling smile, Kathy looked, I thought, like a luminously beautiful alien from another planet.  And in a way, that is what she was.  How does anyone live on this earth for twenty-five years after being told your time is up, without becoming a little other-worldly?  She’d had a foot on the other side for a long time.

To say she also had perspective on what’s important in life is, of course, an understatement; what astonished me most, though, was the purity of her joy.  Sick as she was — and even though she knew the disease she’d somehow outwitted and outlasted for years was catching up with her at last– Kathy was also an eternal optimist; how, at this point, could she be anything but? And she was, quite simply, lots of fun to be around.

I slung one arm around her waist, held on to her elbow with my other hand and, laughing at my clumsiness, we somehow managed to hobble down to the pool. We lolled around in the water for an hour or so, talking as if we’d known one another all our lives.  Kathy was that kind of person — she cut right to the chase.  Right away, I loved her for that. Why waste time on social niceties when you can get down to the real stuff, life and death and the big questions, instead?  There was no subject I couldn’t broach with her, nothing that felt off limits; who cared that we’d only met that morning?

“How long have you needed the brace, and the cane?” I asked.  She told me that, although there had been times in the past when she’d been bedridden, this new, apparently permanent disability was recent.  She was still getting used to being so visibly and so physically “handicapped.”

“But you know,” she said, “it’s a funny thing.  When I started having so much trouble walking, what I found out there was just the friendliest world.”

Kathy didn’t stick around for dinner that night.  She was tired and wanted to get home before dark.  I remember watching her slip her wig back on, give it a little tousle and a quarter turn, so that one auburn lock hung down casually over her face.  We hugged good-bye, and Jamie told her friend she’d see her soon.  And then Kathy took her crutch and made her way out to her car, lowered herself in, and drove away.  I didn’t see her again.  But I see her now, in my mind’s eye.  And I know I will remember her always, a woman who knew all there is to know about living in the moment.

As most of you who are regular readers here are aware, I’ve been finishing work on a new book, trying to meet my deadline, which is now less than two weeks away. I’ve had to let the blog go for a while, in order to focus all my time on the manuscript.  But when I woke up this morning, and found a note on my phone from Jamie saying that Kathy had died yesterday, I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of writing done today.  Instead, I took a long walk.  I went to my favorite spot in the woods to pray and meditate and listen to the wind in the trees.  And I remembered Kathy.  I knew her only for that one day, but in that short time, we managed to cover a lot of ground.  It feels odd to say it, but I feel as if I’ve lost a friend.  Certainly, all who knew her have lost a teacher.

Below is an essay Kathy wrote a few years ago for the New York Times.  I read it again early this morning, through tears.  I may have written a book called The Gift of an Ordinary Day, but Kathy Rich, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, knew just how much the present is really worth.

17 Years Later, Stage 4 Survivor Is Savoring a Life Well Lived
By KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH
Each year on a day in January — the 15th, to be precise — I go to a Web site and post a message to hundreds of women I’ve never met, saying, essentially, “I’m still here.”
Within days, a thunderous chorus comes back, 200 voices, 300. A few of them ask, “How can this be?” Sometimes they begin, “I’m crying.” Many answer in kind: “I’m here, too. It’s now three years.” “Five years.” “Three months.” “Seven.”
What we’re doing, in a way, is checking for lights in the darkness.
Now there probably aren’t a lot of Web sites where the announcement that you’re around and breathing would cause anyone to take notice, let alone respond. But this is a site for people with Stage 4 breast cancer, something I’ve had for 17 years. The average life expectancy with the diagnosis is 30 months, so this is a little like saying I’m 172 years old: seemingly impossible. But it’s not. I first found I had the illness in 1988, and it was rediagnosed as Stage 4 in 1993. That’s 22 years all together, which is the reason I post each year on the anniversary of the day I learned my cancer was back: to let women know that it happens, that people do live with this for years.
I tell them that when the cancer returned, it came on so fast, spread so quickly, that I was given a year or two to live. Within months, the disease turned vicious. It started breaking bones from within, and was coming close to severing my spinal cord.
Nothing was working, till a doctor tried a hormone treatment no one used much anymore, and the cancer turned and retreated, snarling. It remains sluggish but active. Every so often, it rears its head; when it does, we switch treatments and it slides back down. In that way, I stay alive.
I tell them: you just don’t know.
Two and a half years after the Stage 4 diagnosis, I confessed to my mother that the doctors had said I had two years to live, tops. I’d kept this information to myself because if you say it, it’s true. I told her this laughing, as if we were trading preposterous stories. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to hold your breath if you’re going to make that deadline,” she replied, in her slow Southern drawl when I gave my previously stated expiration date.
I spent the next five years holding my breath, then did the same for another five. I enacted every New Year’s resolution, past and future, all at once. Quit work that had grown stale and became a writer. Wrote a book. Went to India on assignment, fell in love with the language that was swirling around me, went back to live for a year and learn Hindi. Didn’t realize the reason I’d come to dislike that hyperbolically overachieving Lance Armstrong was that his behavior was too familiar. Take a nap, Lance! I’d think to myself, though in truth I couldn’t either.
But if I was verging on radical levels of life consumption, I had a reason: No one had told me I wasn’t going to die soon. About 12 years out, my doctor finally did.
There’s a small subcategory of people with Stage 4 breast cancer, it turned out, who live for years and years. “Twenty. Thirty,” said my doctor, George Raptis. This group constitutes about 2 percent of all cases. Doctors can’t predict who will fall into this category. They can’t say you’re in it till you’re in it — till you’ve racked up the necessary miles.
The reason they can’t is that for all the pink-ribbon hoopla, despite the hundreds of millions that have been poured into breast cancer research, hardly anyone has looked into the why of long-distance survival; not one doctor has specialized in this field.
Here’s pretty much the sum of collective knowledge: People in this group tend to have disease that has spread to the bone (as opposed to lung or liver, say) and feeds on estrogen. They tend to do well on hormone treatments. End of commonly known story.
But as Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told me, you can also find women whose breast cancer spread to organs other than bone, for whom hormone therapy did exactly nothing, who had their lesions surgically excised and who have been free of cancer for 30 years. None of these women could have expected to live.
You just don’t know, and neither, unfortunately, does the medical field.
One reason, as the breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love told me, is that “many clinical trials are funded by the drug companies to run for five years,” obviously not enough if you’re investigating long-term survivors. But through her institute, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, she has begun to conduct research.
Dr. Love said she was inspired by a colleague who told her that in World War II, aviation experts focused on planes that went down until someone said, “Why aren’t we studying the planes that stay up in the air?” By no means a reflexive optimist, she thinks there’s hope we’ll find a cure.
On the Web site, I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.
Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.
I write to them (to myself) that of course this is tough: the waiting to see if the shadows are multiplying, the physical pain, the bouts with terrible blackness.
“But there can be joy in this life, too,” I say, “and that’s so important to remember. This disease does not invalidate us. This past year, I’ve had the joy of falling in love with my sister’s kids, who live states away and whom I hadn’t had the chance to know. I’ve had a second book come out, one I worked on for eight years, about going to live in India with Stage 4 cancer. I’ve had so many moments of joy this year, but when I’m in blackness, I forget about those.” Then I ask them to write and tell me about theirs, and lights begin to flash.
“Had a pajama party with my oldest friend, laughing through the night in matching pajamas about old times.”
“Came in second in a bridge tournament.”
“I went on a wonderful camping trip with my family.”
“Seeing my older daughter grow taller than me. She’s now 5-9.”
One thing I don’t ever think to say: When I was told I had a year or two, I didn’t want anything one might expect: no blow-out trip to the Galápagos, no perfect meal at Alain Ducasse, no defiant red Maserati. All I wanted was ordinary life back, for ordinary life, it became utterly clear, is more valuable than anything else.
I don’t think to say it, and I never will. The women on the site already know that.

Katherine Russell Rich is the author of “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language” and “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — and Back.”

Courage

Toward the end of my month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu last spring, each person in my class was handed a sheet of paper and a pen and asked to write the words “What I want to tell you is. . .”

The assignment, then, was to write a letter, a letter from the radiant, wide-open, yoga-saturated, heart-full self of that moment to some beleaguered, tired and doubting future self who might one day be in need of a little bucking up.

These letters, we were assured, would arrive in our mailboxes at the right time.

There were so many wild and wonderful and out-of-the- box experiences crammed into those thirty intense days of teacher training that I didn’t even remember writing a letter to myself. When a hand-addressed envelope arrived in my mailbox a week ago, I didn’t recognize the writing, which was much lovelier than my typical, hasty, printing-cursive hybrid. It seemed odd that the return address was my own. I sat down outside and read words that I had no memory of putting to paper. It felt as if I’d suddenly heard from my own best friend from long ago, a soul mate whose memory I cherish but who I haven’t seen or even thought about for a long time. To get a letter from her, out of the blue, was an unexpected gift. To realize that this distant, nearly forgotten person seemed to know exactly how I’d been feeling lately, and could say just what I needed to hear was like having an unspoken prayer answered.

“When it’s a choice between love and fear,” my wiser self told my struggling self, “choose love.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. Sometimes, when things are really hard and scary and not the way I want them to be at all, choosing love over fear seems crazy and impossible. But of course, love really is the only good choice. It’s just that choosing it can sometimes require so much more courage than I think I have.

In two days, both of my sons will head back to school. At our house right now, the bedrooms look like they’ve been ransacked, full of clothes and twisted bedding and backpacks and shoes and notebooks. (Both boys claim that what’s going on up there is a “deep clean”; to me it looks more like a deep shuffle.) The TV is tuned to the U.S. Open. The kitchen has been turned into Poster Rolling Central — Jack is working for his dad, earning money by stuffing hundreds of posters into mailing tubes. Steve is affixing labels. Henry is deleting two thousand songs from his iPod. The washing machine is running nonstop. The food is getting eaten as fast as I can cook it. As I sit here typing on the porch, I can hear the three guys laughing in the other room, commenting on the tennis, enjoying this last full day of summer vacation. Tonight we’ll go out for our ritual meal at Chili’s (democracy prevails on this front; alas, the vote for Chili’s is always 3 to 1) and to see the new Steve Carrell movie. It’s all good.

Except for the moments in the past week that have been awful. The ones that have pushed me to the outer limits of my abilities as a parent. There have been some of those, too. If you’ve ever shared your life with teenagers, you can easily supply your own details. And you probably also know that giving an adolescent the space he/she needs in order to grow up is as necessary as it is risky. Kids make mistakes, and our job as parents is to step back and allow them to fall, and then to make sure, too, that they actually learn what it’s like to hit the ground.

“I feel completely lost,” my son Jack said to me the other afternoon. I knew what he meant. The truth was, I was feeling pretty lost myself. But then I suddenly realized that I did have something to offer him. “You know,” I said, “you don’t have to figure everything out now. All you need to do is make the next good choice for this moment. You can certainly do that.” And then I left him there to figure it out. I put on my sneakers and went out for a run.

Choosing fear would have kept me in my chair, talking, trying to repair the damage and make things right for him. Choosing love means allowing him to own the struggle that rightfully belongs to him. It means having faith that this, too, shall pass.

“Parenting requires courage,” my friend Bruce wrote in a profoundly affecting essay this week. “Courage to set limits and bear anger; courage to let go and tolerate fear that our kids may come to harm; courage to trust that we and our children are enough.”

That pretty much says everything I want to hold on to during these final days of summer. I could pray for all sorts of things as my children make their way out into the world, but I doubt that even my most fervent appeals for their safety, health, and well-being would do a single bit of good. Those pleas are born of fear, of my own sense of helplessness in the face of dangers and environments and situations that aren’t mine to control. And so, I pray instead for the only thing I can really hope for: courage. Because courage, of course, is love in the face of fear. Somehow, after a month of yoga and meditation, a soft, vulnerable part of me knew that very well. Back in the world, faced with problems I can’t solve and children I can’t protect, I forgot.

Put two parents and two nearly grown young men in a house together at the end of a long summer, and it’s probably inevitable that everyone involved will do or say something that they will later regret. On this peaceful, companionable Sunday morning, I can now cut us all that much slack. The good news is: choosing love over fear brings us back to one another. And as soon as we stop feeling afraid of the dark, we are free to enjoy the simple pleasures of a few moments of light. As Bruce writes, “To fully feel fear, and then manage it, quell it, contextualize it, rise above it . . . now we’re talking courage.”

Yes.

Cookies

A few months ago my friend Margaret Roach gave away a cookbook on her site A Way to Garden. I read her description of Heidi Swanson’s beautiful recipes, considered the lush photo on the book jacket, and gave in — as I rarely do — to an impulsive on-line purchase. (Apologies to my much-loved and frequented local bookstore!) I wasn’t going to wait an entire week to see if I might win a copy of Super Natural Every Day; I ordered the book that very moment and two days later I had it in my hands. Which is how this spring has come to be, in our house, The Time of Those Amazing Cookies.

There has been so much going on here that I haven’t written about — the school year ending, boys coming home (and leaving again), family dinners, countless meals and loads of laundry and breakfasts that go on for hours, a piano concert by Henry, laughter and tears, good times with good friends, forsythia and lilacs and irises and peonies blooming and passing in their turn, hot days and cold ones, walks in the woods and runs on the bike-path. We’ve put almost a thousand miles on the car, driving to New York City, to the Berkshires to pick Jack up from school, to Maine to deliver Henry to his summer job, to Boston to deliver Jack to his.

It seems that, no matter how early I get up in the morning or how late I stay up at night, I can’t quite manage to place a margin around these days. And I haven’t written a word. (I figure that hasty e-mails and entries in my calendar don’t count as writing.) Every minute, I say to myself, justifying my lack of output, has been spoken for, busy, packed.

I’ve loved this time of family comings and goings, have loved having both boys at home and asleep in their own beds, “each fate,” as Sharon Olds has written, “like a vein of abiding mineral not discovered yet.” I’ve loved being fully engaged right where I am, as wife and mother and aunt and friend and gardener; have loved each and every one of these spectacular, lengthening days of June.

At the same time, I find myself a bit in awe of, even a bit envious of, those who feel as if they aren’t quite living unless they’re writing. I think of these people as the “real” writers, the ones who weave their writing right into the fabric of their days, no matter what’s going on around them. Real writers are those who are fed and sustained by the daily process of turning the raw stuff of life into shapely, meaningful prose. I wish I was one of those writers — faster, more disciplined, more determined, more productive, more — and this is the one that’s really hard to admit — courageous.

For when it comes right down to it, I know I could find or make the time to write more often than I do. It’s not really hours that I lack so much as the confidence to sit down and come face-to-face with myself. To commit my thoughts to an empty page and then to say, “This is ok, this is enough, this does the trick.” Sometimes, I just don’t have what it takes to wrestle with my own swirling mass of emotions, emotions that I can’t ever seem to adequately translate into words, especially words that can be shared.

In these last weeks I’ve sipped tea with a friend who is facing major surgery, prognosis unknown. I’ve watched my older son sit down at a piano in front of a hundred people and play a gorgeous Rachmaninoff prelude from memory. I’ve taken dawn walks with my husband and gathered around a table at my parents’ house with our entire extended family. I’ve listened in while Henry read a book to his four-year-old cousin and while Jack sang to himself in the shower. There have been sights that have left me breathless: a bluebird perched on the edge of the birdbath, a hummingbird trembling at the lip of a petunia, an alabaster peony unfurling its petals in the heat of an afternoon. And there have been moments that have made my heart swell: watching Jack walk through the door of his old high school (the one he left after sophomore year) to take SAT IIs last weekend; sitting down to dinner on the porch and holding hands with my husband and two sons as we recited the grace we’ve said together since kindergarten days; listening to Jack play his guitar; saying good-bye to Henry for the summer.

In the midst of all these comings and goings, all these meals cooked and cleaned up after, all this being and doing and celebrating, a letter arrived on Monday from a reader whose twelve-year-old son died in an accident two weeks ago. She wrote to me to say that at his memorial service last weekend she asked her best friend to read a passage from my book, a paragraph about missing, most of all, the perfectly ordinary days.

All week, her letter has haunted me, this mother’s unfathomable loss running like a quiet undercurrent through my own busyness. “Your words are helping me heal,” she wrote, “and I wanted to thank you. The memories are all I have now and I thank you for showing me how to look at life a little differently.”

Writing, for me anyway, is a slow, scary, private process. Lately, I’ve been unable to summon the part of myself that believes in the worth of what I do. I wish, for my own sake, that I’d tried to capture some of the fleeting, ordinary, yet incredibly precious moments of these last weeks, for I sense the days of togetherness already slipping away as we settle into summer schedules that keep us mostly apart. But then, for the hundredth time, I ask myself if there is anything at all I can say that I haven’t said before, or that someone else hasn’t said already, but better.

The lesson, the great, overarching truth that I keep repeating even as I learn it again and again myself, is that the sacred is in the ordinary. That it is to be found right here, right now, in our own daily lives. In our most inconsequential yet most holy connections with our children, our loved ones, our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends. In the the kitchen, the bedroom, the office, our very own backyards.

I do know that. I think that nearly everything I write is some variation on this theme. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m the only one who needs to keep hearing it, and whether, in fact, I really have run out of things to say to the rest of the world. This week, a heartbreaking, generous letter from a grieving mother reminded me of this simple, essential fact all over again. It made me think that perhaps the most important lessons do bear repeating after all. And that there are as many ways to be attentive to our lives as there are ways to pray, to grieve, to celebrate.

I am still hoping for courage. I have a new book to write, an essay due next week, guest blogs to post. And instead of getting down to work, I find myself grating chocolate, chopping apricots, baking batch after batch of cookies to share. Baking, feeding the people I love, I grant myself reprieve from the struggle to find words, words that might begin to respond to another family’s unfathomable loss or that could possibly do justice to the preciousness, the pain, the beauty, the fragility, the wonder of things just as they are.

And that brings me back to where I began here. When I’m floundering, when I lose my way on the page, I retreat to the safe haven of my kitchen counter. I am not always brave enough or self-disciplined enough to write. But I can always cook. And once I began making Heidi Swanson’s not-too-sweet but utterly extraordinary ginger cookies a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stop. It feels almost as if these cookies have expressed everything I haven’t managed to write about lately: love, empathy, joy, gratitude, pride, hope. I make batch after batch of the dough, pop it into the refrigerator, and bake more as needed. I brought ginger cookies to a friend facing her first round of radiation for breast cancer, to a special dinner where they complemented the earliest strawberries and rhubarb of the season, to my parents’ house where my little nephew definitively pronounced them “the best.” I served these cookies to my writing students and to friends who dropped by for a spur-of-the-moment supper. I made over two hundred of them for Henry’s concert, and a dozen to console Jack while he watched his favored team, the Mavericks, go down in defeat to the Miami Heat. If you have seen me in the last month, chances are I’ve handed you a warm cookie.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do,” Rumi reminds us. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Loving this life, cherishing these perfectly ordinary, radiantly beautiful summer days, I do aspire to be attentive, to be thankful for all that is. Sometimes I kneel and kiss the ground by sitting at my desk, fingers hovering over this keyboard. Sometimes, I just bake cookies.

If you were plunked down in my kitchen right now, I’d turn the oven on, start scooping teaspoonsful of fragrant dough onto the pan, and ask you to tell me the news of your day. Instead, I’ll do the next best thing — share Heidi Swanson’s lovely recipe and give you a link to her popular and wonderfully inviting blog. Meanwhile, if you decide to treat yourself to the book — and I encourage you to do so — make sure to try her amazing Baked Oatmeal, the Mostly Not Potato Salad, and the nutty, orange-scented Granola, which is hands-down the best I’ve ever tasted. (Yes, I’ve pretty much been cooking nonstop here.)

Heidi Swanson’s Ginger Cookies

1/2 cup large-grain raw or turbinado sugar
6 ounces bittersweet 70% cacao dark chocolate
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter cut into small cubes
1/4 cup unsulphured blackstrap molasses
2/3 cup fine grain natural cane sugar
2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 large egg, well beaten
1 cup plump dried apricots, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350, place racks in the top and bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper or a Silpat mat, and place the large-grain sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.
Finely chop the chocolate bar into 1/8-inch pieces, more like shavings really.
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt.
Heat the butter in a saucepan until it is just barely melted. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses, sugar, and fresh ginger. The mixture should be warm, but not hot at this point, if it is hot to the touch let it cool a bit. Whisk in the egg. Now pour this over the flour mixture, add apricots, and stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate. Chill for 30 minutes, long enough for the dough to firm up a bit.
I like these cookies tiny, barely bite-sized, so I scoop out the dough in exact, level tablespoons. I then tear those pieces of dough in two before rolling each 1/2 tablespoon of dough into a ball shape. From there, grab a small handful of the big sugar you set aside earlier and roll each ball between your palms to heavily coat the outside of each dough ball. Place dough a few inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until cookies puff up, darken a bit, and get quite fragrant. (In my oven, 8 minutes is just perfect.)
Makes roughly 4 dozen.
Prep time: 30 min – Cook time: 10 min