Otherwise

heart of stoneLong after most of my friends in their fifties had given up running, I continued.  Not every day, and not very far, and not for very long.  Better, I thought, to save my knees to run again another day than to push myself to go another mile or another twenty minutes.  For the last few years, I’ve run less in the hope of running longer.  If I was careful, I figured, I would run right into my sixties.

Even so, there wasn’t a morning that I laced up my sneakers and headed down the road with the wind in my hair, fresh air filling my lungs, and my beloved border collie Gracie trotting at my heels, that a line by poet Jane Kenyon didn’t cross my mind: “But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.”

“Otherwise” is Jane Kenyon’s hymn of gratitude to her life just as it was on one blessed, ordinary day — gratitude that is burnished by her own profound awareness of life’s fleetingness, of change, of mortality.

The lines of this heart-breakingly prescient poem always give me pause.  Jane Kenyon died of leukemia at forty-seven. Her “otherwise” came tragically soon, a stark reminder – as is every untimely death or freak accident or life-changing diagnosis – that our very existence here is fragile, unpredictable, not to be taken for granted.

And yet, I suspect I’m not alone when I admit that most days it’s a challenge to maintain that perspective. Perhaps it’s human nature to weave ourselves a thin, protective mantle of denial about life’s one and only absolute truth: nothing lasts.

Waking up in the morning, I set my sights on the beginnings of things, not the endings – I run through my to-do list, ponder the essay I want to write, wonder where I’ll find the hour I need to exercise, think about the talk I’ll give next week. Before long, I’m preoccupied with bills to pay, emails to answer, the dishes piled in the sink. The preciousness of life is rarely uppermost in my mind as I deal with what the day hands me; too often, instead, I find myself succumbing to frustration at the way things are:  not what I’d planned, not quite up to my expectations, not this, not that. [continue...]

Gracie, 8/20/00 – 11/18/13

IMG_0154Everyone we know who’s ever loved and lost a dog told us the same thing: that she would let us know when it was time to say good-bye. And of course, she did.

Yesterday morning we let Gracie go, with sad hearts but also certain that it was her day to leave us.

Since she was diagnosed with cancer just a month ago, on Oct. 17, Gracie rose to the challenge of treatment just the way she did everything else in her life: willingly, without fuss or fanfare, and with complete trust in her humans to do what was best for her. We took a big swing at it, with three rounds of chemo, and were amazed and thrilled as she gained back weight and strength and her zest for life.

A week ago, she was like her old self — up at dawn, taking long morning walks, playing in the leaves, chasing balls and sticks. (Steve took this photo  last weekend, as Gracie eagerly did her part during fall clean-up at my parents’ house.)

There were no bad days. These past few weeks have been about massages and Reiki and hand-feeding, lots of special, home-cooked food, visits with all her friends, treats and walks and togetherness. We had the great gift of getting her back for a little while, knowing as well that things could turn at any moment. When they did, we took our cues from her. [continue...]

A healing journey

L5 xray
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to learn

~ Pema Chodron

We looked at the X-rays together, my son Jack and I.

“This is last August,” the orthopedist said, pointing to the image on the left, showing two clear fractures in Jack’s L-5 vertebrae, fractures that, after 6 months, were showing no signs of healing on one side and only a minimal feathering of bone growth on the other.

“And this is now,” he said, indicating the scan from last week. “Completely healed.

“I can tell you,” he said turning to Jack and raising his hand for a high five, “this hardly ever happens.”

I remember my very first glimpse of my younger son: the dark, cool room; the ultrasound wand sliding through the goop on my swollen stomach; my husband peering over me to get a look at the shadowy little curlicue of a person floating deep within my belly. It was, I am suddenly realizing, twenty-one years ago this summer – my son’s entire lifetime ago, and yet still fresh and vivid in my mind’s eye. The technician asked if we wanted to know the sex of our baby. [continue...]

Mending the world within our reach — and a video to inspire

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-free-heart-image28627969I suspect I’m not the only one feeling a little wary and vulnerable in my skin these days.  A week after the Boston bombings, as people across the nation paused yesterday afternoon to observe a moment of silence at 2:50, I stood alone in my own quiet kitchen, sad and somewhat at a loss for what to do next.

There is so much in my life to be grateful for. No one I know was injured last week.  All my loved ones are fine.  Nothing visible in my world has changed. And yet, I find myself blinking back tears at the slightest provocation or criticism or harsh word.  There is too much violence in the world.  Let us not add to it, not even with one more negative word or gesture.

The headlines in the newspaper are both an accounting and a measure of our collective sorrow: the suffering that spills across the pages in articles and images, the anger and confusion still searching for an outlet, the grief still so fresh and raw.  Looking at the photos of two brothers, one dead and one facing death or life imprisonment, I search in vain for some clue that would explain such calculated, senseless evil.  And then, because I am myself a mother of two boys, I can’t help but think: these boys are also someone’s sons.

At the same time, photos from the funerals remind us of all the other parents who are mourning.  The losses, and the ripples from those losses, are unfathomable. Yet in the midst of loss, there is extraordinary grace, too, and resilience. On TV, a composed young dancer’s face lights up as she tells Anderson Cooper how glad she is to be alive, even as she envisions her new life without her left foot.  She will dance again, she insists, leaning into her husband’s arms and gazing down at the bright pink bandage that wraps her stump.  And then she makes a promise: somehow, though she’s never been a runner herself, she intends to return to the Marathon next year – as a participant, even if it means she walks or crawls across the finish line.

There is more than one path toward healing, no one right way to grieve or to recover.  But after a week of monitoring the unfolding developments in Boston, after listening to this courageous young woman try to articulate why she is choosing not to look back in anger but to move forward with hope, I sense it’s time for a break from the relentless onslaught of news.  Time to find my own still center and embrace the texture of life as it is – not an easy task in the best of times, perhaps even more challenging today.

The sight of my welcoming house at the end of a long car ride Sunday night filled my heart to overflowing.  Hugging my husband and son after a weekend on the road, receiving a sweet text just now from a friend, bending down to the floor to snuggle my aging dog, reading a poem I love, watching the sun slip behind a cloud, just being – alive and aware and fully present in my own ordinary life – feels emotionally demanding, too.  It’s as if everything has become heightened, both the fragility of my own brief presence here, and the exquisite, complicated beauty of our interconnected human existence on this earth.

Maybe, for a time, we are meant to be this raw and tender.  Forced to acknowledge the dark shadow side of human nature and to feel the full brunt of that knowing, we have to face the truth:  People hurt each other.  Violence and suffering are intertwined, one giving rise to the other.  And somehow, it is up to each one of us to do better, to soften our hearts, to sing our songs even in the midst of sorrow, to take better care of ourselves and of one another.

I think of how many opportunities I have each day to be brave and vulnerable, to offer a hand, to make love visible – and how many of those opportunities I squander, because I’m too annoyed to be expansive, too scared to reach out, too distracted to notice, or too busy to bother.  And then I’m reminded of words I turn to again and again by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, words that guide me home when I stray away from the person I aspire to be:

Be brave…

“Anything you do from the soulful self will help lighten the burdens of the world. Anything. You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion. Be outrageous in forgiving. Be dramatic in reconciling. Mistakes? Back up and make them as right as you can, then move on. Be off the charts in kindness. In whatever you are called to, strive to be devoted to it in all aspects large and small. Fall short? Try again. Mastery is made in increments, not in leaps. Be brave, be fierce, be visionary. Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach. To strive to live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give to the world.”

 Inspiration. . .

I first met Carrie Carriello three years ago, when she attended a reading of The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  She told me she was thinking about writing a book herself, and asked if I would read a few of her essays.  Her humor and  courage were evident in every paragraph.  I couldn’t imagine how this busy young mother could possibly take care of five rambunctious children, including an autistic son, and find time to write a book, too.  And yet I also had a feeling nothing was going to stop her; she was that determined to tell her family’s story and to share her special little boy with the rest of us. Today, What Color is Monday? is published.

It’s my pleasure to share Carrie’s video with you, in which she recalls the moment she knew for certain her special son would find his way in the world, thanks to a stranger’s generosity – a beautiful example of the way one small act of kindness can transform a life. Listening to Carrie, I’m inspired to reach a little higher myself — to love more, to be better, to be braver, to be kinder.  “You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion.”

Click here to watch.

 

 

Working toward compassion

sunriseI try, pretty much every morning, to be present for the dawn, even if it’s only to stand outdoors shivering in my flip flops and pajamas, gazing eastward. Often I snap a photo as the sun makes its entrance, amazed always at the silent miracle: the gift of another day.

Although I tend to wake up with all sorts of emotions already swirling through my consciousness, indifference is never one of them. Instead – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – I’m often as not overcome with a wild brew of feelings as I stand on my small patch of earth and try to contemplate the much larger world out beyond my view and understanding.

Early yesterday morning, unguarded and unsettled, ears attuned to birdsong and wind, watching the sky brighten and the landscape glow with golden light, it was hard to imagine how life can possibly be both so beautiful and so horrific.

How, I wondered, am I to hold in my small, imperfect human heart both the tragedy that unfolded in Boston on Monday and, at the same time, gratitude that no one I know was hurt? How do we process the unimaginable?

On Monday afternoon, I drove a dear friend to the doctor and then we stopped for ice cream downtown. We sat outside in the mild sunshine eating peppermint stick and chocolate, happy in our innocence, our only worry the fact that we were filling our bellies way too close to dinner time. At home a few minutes later, lacing up my sneakers to take a walk, I had no idea what to make of a text that arrived from Jack saying, “I’m safe.” My first, thoughtless response was, “Well of course you are.”

Only when I opened my computer a moment later, and saw the scrolling news on the Boston Globe website, did I realize how lucky I was that the very first news I heard of the bombings came in the form of assurance from my younger son that he was all right. And yet, alongside my own relief was the realization that thousands of others were still awaiting news of loved ones, and that when it finally did come, not all the news would be good. Indeed, for many it would be devastating.

When tragedy strikes, it feels as if the entire world should stop and reassemble itself into some new pattern. Given the way grief, loss, and violence rip through our own precious complacency, we look around for some corresponding external shift, half expecting the moon and sun and stars to change course, too; wanting the entire universe to register and accommodate our human loss and somehow render it fathomable.

It doesn’t happen.

The sun rises in the morning, unperturbed. The sky turns bright and sheer as a veil and slowly, imperceptibly, the last rim of snow vanishes under the eaves on the north side of the house. Out front, as they do each spring, the indefatigable pansies tip their tiny purple faces toward the warmth. The birds take up their song, regardless. Overhead, a pair of great blue herons glide silently toward the pond, reminding me of the steadiness of their return, year after year. The world spins on, abiding.

How we choose to live in it, and where we look for meaning, is up to us. Standing outside in the early morning — open, attentive, reverent – I allow myself to be filled with the solace of nature’s eternal rhythms. Here, in the gentle breeze upon my cheek, in the joy of watching my dog run at full tilt, pouring across the field, in the squish of mud beneath my boots, I am nourished and restored even as the weight of sadness sits heavily in my heart. Reminded that I’m never far removed from the source and mystery of things, I’m reminded, too, of all that is beyond my comprehension and control.

Two days later, as the investigations into who and why and how grind on, the best response to the violence I can come up with is this: to reaffirm my faith in kindness and to commit myself even more deeply to a practice of living and speaking with compassion.

If I can remember that versions of what happened on Boylston Street on Monday afternoon are occurring each day, all over the world, then I’m reminded that we are all connected, and that there will be no lasting peace for me until there is peace for you, too, no matter who you are.

If I stop to consider that the attack that feels singular and incomprehensible to us – an assault on our home, on our Marathon, on our innocent people – is not unique at all, but the opposite, then I remember that until all people are safe, no one is safe.

If I can dissolve my own barriers and assumptions enough to taste the experience of life from inside someone else’s skin, then I take a small step out of the numbness and daze which keeps me separate from the mistakes and miseries of our own messy human creation.

Last night, Jack called and we talked on the phone for a while. “It didn’t really sink in until today,” he said, “how close I was to what happened. How it could so easily have been me, or anyone I know, there at the finish line.”

“Yes,” I said. “It took me a while to grasp that, too.”

Now I’m coming to think it is our task — as citizens of Boston, of America, and of the earth itself — to hold the truth in our hearts and minds: we are all one, and it is only through our willingness to reach out and touch the pain of others that the world will change.

Let’s get together. . .

Appearances

It seems to me that the best book conversations (well, the best conversations in general) are the ones that take place over a good meal. So my writing buddy Margaret Roach and I are both looking forward to reuniting at a luncheon hosted by The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT, this Friday, April 19 at noon.  For the price of a book, you will get a catered lunch, a reading, and time to chat with the two of us too! Call the store at (860) 868-0525 for more info and to reserve your place. (And to read a lovely article about this special bookstore, click here.)

I first “met” Priscilla Warner right here last June, when she left a comment on a blog post I’d written.  I immediately read her wonderful memoir Learning to Breathe, she read my manuscript of Magical Journey and encouraged me through every step of the final revision, and pretty soon it felt as if we’d been friends forever — even though we STILL haven’t ever laid eyes on each other.  That will change this weekend, when I go to Larchmont, NY, to speak at the Public Library  on Sunday, April 19, at 3:30 — an event Priscilla helped organize, in part, so we can finally meet in person.

Other spring-time journeys:

Margaret and I are doing our very last bookstore “duet” at the Concord Bookshop on Sunday, April 28, at 3.  (Think daffodils, home made cookies, and wide-ranging conversation– everything from the thorny questions of midlife to composting secrets revealed!)

I’ll be back at Ann Patchett’s beautiful Nashville bookstore Parnassus on Thursday, May 2, at 7 pm.

And from Nashville, I’ll go straight to Minneapolis for my final two readings this spring: The annual Motherhood and Words talk at the Loft Literary Center on Saturday, May 4 and, finally, to cap it all off, a reading at Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor’s beloved bookstore in downtown St. Paul on Monday, May 6.  Minneapolis friends, St. Olaf connections, Twin Cities readers, I want to see you all there! 

                  Housekeeping . . .

MOTHER’S DAY isn’t far off.  I’m happy to sign book plates for your gift books (just send me an email through the Contact link.) Or, you can order any of my books — signed and personalized as per your instructions — directly through my local independent bookstore, The Toadstool, here in Peterborough, NH.  I asked Willard, the owner, if he’d be willing to gift-wrap books as Mother’s Day gifts, and he said “Sure.”  To order, click HERE.   This will bring you to an order form at the Toadstool’s website.  Leave a note with your order, letting us know if you want your books personalized and/or gift-wrapped.  I’ll sign them, we’ll wrap them beautifully, and we’ll get them right off to you or to the special moms in your life.

I’ve loved hearing from so many of you!  Your letters never fail to make my day — they remind me all over again how lucky we all are, to be part of a community of readers, seekers, thinkers, nurturers.  If you feel inclined to write a bit MORE, however, I will say that each and every reader review on  Goodreads and on Amazon is hugely appreciated  and hugely helpful too.  Thank you for spreading the word!