Paradise in Plain Sight (and a give-away)

82522Come see the garden,” my new online friend said to me, years ago. We had never met, barely knew each other through the ether, and yet here she was, inviting me to her sanctuary.

I was a New Hampshire housewife contemplating a field of granite rocks beyond my kitchen window. She was a west coast Zen priest, the rightful inheritor of a venerable Japanese garden tucked away in a suburb of LA.

What did we have in common? Perhaps it was something as simple as the belief that an ordinary life is a gift to be reckoned with — that folding socks and driving the carpool and washing supper dishes are opportunities for growth and grace. And we also shared this: a desire to fully inhabit the present moment by learning to pay attention to the ground beneath our own two feet.

It doesn’t sound like much — being quiet, noticing where you are, appreciating what you see, realizing that you already possess what you’ve been looking for because you already are everything you seek.  Of course, this kind of seeing, this kind of unvarnished intimacy with one’s self, is also the task of a lifetime. Hard work. Simple. Not simple. Endless. Worth it.

So, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that we first “met” because our books crossed each other’s doorsteps. [continue...]

Tender

snow angelAs I type these words, the world beyond my window is blanketed by snow.  There is silence in the house, save for the hum of the refrigerator, the whisper of warm air rising from the grates in the floor.  I’ve laid in groceries, mopped the salt and grit from the entryway, put tulips in a vase on the table.  The shoveling and snow-clearing can wait. There is no place to go, nothing to do but chop and roast some vegetables later for dinner.  Time slows. Edges soften. I feel a weight in my heart slowly begin to lift, my breath settle back into a deeper rhythm, my own sense of myself returning.

For a week I’ve been struggling with some old, familiar demons.  The fear of not being enough.  The need to protect my tenderest, most vulnerable feelings from the harsh light of day.  Self-doubt.  Regret for things said and unsaid in a relationship I cherish.  The wish that I could feel less, hurt less, and slough off more.   A piercing disappointment that try as I might to shape my life, there is and will always be so much that’s beyond my control or understanding.  The realization that I’m not quite as good at non-attachment as I like to think I am.

“The root of all suffering,” the Buddhists say, “is the desire for things to be different than they are.”

So simple.  So true.  But knowing it is so doesn’t make the wanting and the wishing go away.  [continue...]

Inhabiting a moment

bed at dusk“Everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes.” — James Salter, “The Art of Fiction No. 133,” The Paris Review

On the bed where I sit cross-legged, leaning against the headboard: eyeglasses, a couple of paperbacks, a new but already much loved hardcover novel, half-read, its pages folded over, the margins scattered with lightly penciled exclamations, each one a silent, emphatic yes. Two pens, gray and black, a notebook with a dark brown cover and magnetic clasp. A pile of down pillows pushed aside, the familiar quilt, softened by age and use, sun-faded. The folded comforter.

Beyond the tall triptych of windows, the view that is the backdrop of all my days and nights. Sloping fields still patched with snow, the stone walls that define our edges here, meandering tendrils of wood smoke curling skyward, the final exhalations of a slow-burning brush pile. The maple tree that’s almost close enough to touch, its dark limbs silhouetted against a twilight sky: rose, transparent blue, violet and gold. The fading palette of an April dusk. Tiny, tight-fisted buds where just yesterday there were none.

A platoon of robins that descends as if summoned to the yard. They work away at the newly bared patches of earth, eyes cocked like surveyors taking measure of the land. The mushy, receding snow. The flat, matted grass. A lone yellow crocus still clenched shut, withholding its bloom. The distant mountains drenched for one singular instant in the day’s last light, already slipping into shadow as the sky drains of color. The ticking clock on the bedside table. The quiet way evening settles in.

One son on his way tonight to New York City — hopeful, off to answer a call, a long-shot opportunity to take one small step closer to his Broadway dream. The odds aren’t good. He knows that but goes anyway. This is what it is be twenty-three and wishing for something, anything, to happen — you say yes and figure out the details later. The brief heart-tug when he left an hour ago, fresh shaven, clothes shoved into a pack, one eye on the clock, car keys jangling in his hand. Imagining him tomorrow morning at ten, climbing the stairs of some building in Times Square, giving his name at the door, slipping into a much-coveted seat at a pre-Broadway workshop where, just maybe, he can convince somebody he’d be a useful guy to have around.

From the kitchen below, the muffled sound of a Celtics game on TV. The rise and fall of my younger son’s voice and his dad’s responses, their staccato, companionable conversation punctuated by alternating cheers and cries of despair. The pleasurable stillness of the house in the hour after dinner when the dishes are done. The slow, unwinding hours before bed. The sense of embrace.

All week, I’ve been thinking about the line quoted above, Salter’s idea that “everything that is not written down disappears, except for certain imperishable moments.” By imperishable, I assume he means the big ones – the birth of a child, a phone call bringing good tidings or bad news, a vow spoken, a declaration of love, of betrayal. We don’t need to preserve those moments that instantly engrave themselves upon our hearts; for better and for worse they become part of who we are, our own unwritten enduring history.

But everyday life — the life we fumble through and take for granted and get distracted by – this ordinary life is comprised of little else but perishable moments, random strings of details, most of them barely worthy of our notice: the slant of sun across the breakfast table, the coffee steaming in the mug, the brush of a hand across a brow, the dog’s head in your lap, a son’s casual, quick embrace, a handful of stars flung across a vast night sky, few notes worked out on the piano. The flotsam and jetsam that add up to days lived, days forgotten.

It takes a kind of determined willingness to pay attention, an eye deliberately refreshed and attuned to nuance. And it takes time, time I rarely spare of late, to pause long enough to truly see. To sit in silence and slowly, haltingly, put what is fleeting and ephemeral into words. The inescapable truth of the present moment: it’s already gone by the time I manage to set it down upon a page.

And yet, I do believe there’s something to be said for trying. Something to be said for inhabiting stillness and then looking out at everything as if for the first time. For me, it is always the same lesson, one I learn by lingering in one place for a while and softening my gaze. Making myself at home in the moment means allowing time and space for each thing to become wholly itself, distinct and beautiful in its own way, each bearing its own secret revelation.

What I’m noticing as I sit in bed this evening and take stock of the fading, golden light, the muffled sounds of home, the unimportant particulars of here and now, is this: the simple act of recalibrating my attention calls me back into relationship with my life.

Perhaps a day will come when I will be grateful even for this humble record, this snapshot of an unremarkable time. I still believe with all my heart in the gift of an ordinary day. But I also have to remind myself, again and again, to accept that gift for what it is: proof that every moment offers another quiet opportunity to be amazed.

So, why not try this? Close your eyes. Draw a deep breath in and then exhale a long, deep breath out. Step gently through the opening, into now. Allow your eyes to open quietly, as if you are drawing back, a curtain. See whatever is at hand. This is where you are. Before the moment sheds its skin and assumes a new shape, weave a skein of words around it. Take a picture. Say “thank you” out loud and feel the texture of those words on your tongue. See how the very act of noticing is something akin to wonder.

Quiet work

Remember that poster in your high school guidance counselor’s office? The one with an airbrushed photo of some generic sunrise and a caption that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”? At seventeen, I really did not want to hear that.

This morning at dawn I stepped outside. The sunrise was spectacular. The first words that popped into my head were, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The birds were singing like crazy. My husband was already down in the field, throwing a tennis ball for Gracie. And my heart was full to overflowing with gratitude. The first day of the rest of my life seemed like a very good reason to stand in one place for a while, watch the sun climb up into the sky, listen to the wild symphony going on outside, and give thanks for everything.

Yesterday at 2:08 in the afternoon, I hit the SEND button and emailed the last chapter of the manuscript I’ve been working on for the last year to my editor. It took a little while for the fact of that to sink in: I did it.

I walked downstairs in a daze, went outside and sat down in a lawn chair next to Steve. And then I burst into tears. The transition from writing to being done with writing pretty much undid me. There was the relief of making my deadline, of course, but it was inextricably intertwined with the despair of knowing that the finished product is so much less than the beautiful creation I envisioned in my imagination all those months ago, before I actually got down to the discouraging business of trying to translate experience into words.

While I’ve been sequestered upstairs in Henry’s bedroom, surrounded by his old Red Sox posters and various drafts and file cards, the seasons changed. I missed most of winter, and barely noticed the arrival of spring. Yesterday, with the finish line in sight, I sat on Henry’s bed with my laptop in front of me for seven hours without even looking up. When I finally ventured out into my own front yard yesterday afternoon, it felt as if I was returning home from an extended trip overseas, or was just recovering from a debilitating illness. I’d been gone a long time. Now, suddenly, with one tap of the keys, I was back. Re-entry was just a little rocky. All I could think was, “I’m done and I failed.”

My husband wiped my tears away and gave me a sweet letter he’d written in the morning, when he could see the end was near. And then he gave me Wendell Berry’s “Collected Poems,” the most perfect gift for that tumultuous moment. I opened the book and the first poem I came to was this one, called “Like Snow.”

Like Snow

Suppose we did our work
Like the snow, quietly, quietly,
Leaving nothing out.

Such solid, simple words. Such a fine thing to aspire to. I wonder why it is that we humans suffer so with our fears and doubts about not being enough. We do the best we can, give all we have to give, and then we turn a harsh eye on the beauty of our efforts.

Today, on this first day of the rest of my life, I have practiced doing my work like the snow. Quietly, quietly.

Practice

The theme of my life this winter can be summed up in a word: practice. Two-thirds of the way through a memoir, with another four chapters to go and a deadline less than two months away, I have made a commitment to writing practice.

But I am a slow writer, never certain of the way forward, and so I have no choice but to practice patience.

Waiting for words to come, trusting that if I stay here long enough, the next sentence will find its way home to me, requires a certain kind of faith. Faith in mystery and faith in the process — and so I practice faith, too. Faith, it turns out, takes quite a lot of practice.

Yoga practice makes my writing practice possible; in order to sit for hours on end, I must first get up and really move.

Breathing practice fuels the yoga practice; without the union of breath and movement, yoga is just exercise, and I need a little more sustenance from my practice these days than a few leg lifts would provide.

Meditation practice guides me back into my writing, for before I can write so much as a line, I must listen. And in order to listen, I must practice stillness.

Stillness is a challenge, possible only when I practice discipline, for stillness is so not my nature. Discipline practice returns me to my yoga mat day after day, and then it hustles me right back upstairs, to my spot against the bedpillows and my laptop balanced on my knees, and the words on the page, and the view out the window.

I look at the dark curve of mountains against the winter sky, hear the whoosh of wind curling around the corner of the house, the ticking clock, the soft, steady breath of my dog asleep on the rug, and I practice gratitude, for really, what could be better than this – this life, this moment, this practice of pausing and noticing and saying “thank you”?

I used to think of my life in terms of the various roles and responsibilities that made me me: there was motherhood, house work and editing work and writing work, marriage, exercise, spirituality, friendship. Lots of expectations to juggle and jobs to tackle and experiences to either embrace or endure or reject. And never, ever, enough time to fit it all in or get it all done.

Writing was always the first thing to go. How could I sit alone in a room typing words on a screen when there were so many more “important” things I should be doing instead?

But with only a slight shift in imagination, everything has changed. I’ve come to see my life for what it is — not some elaborate story I’ve told myself a thousand times, but simply this: an opportunity to practice.

And suddenly, there is plenty of room and all the time in the world for me to do the only thing I need to do — keep practicing.

A little background: I wrote this post quickly, at the invitation of memoirist and writing teacher extraordinare Marion Roach, who is guest-editing this week over at SheWrites, a terrific site that empowers and informs women writers. (You can read her brilliant “Memoir Manifesto,” in which this little piece is included, here.) When I read Marion’s email, asking if I wanted to contribute something, my first impulse was to say, “Thanks, but no, I’ve got way too much on my plate already.” I was actually about to type just that into my “reply” box, when this started to come out instead. I think it is the first time I’ve ever written anything without thinking about it first. The first time words have ever “just come” to me. (I hear this happens quite often for OTHER writers, but not to me, not ever.) And yet, surprise, there it was. An answer. An affirmative answer rather than the “thanks but no thanks” I was intending to write. And this, I guess, is the benefit of practice. Do anything long enough, regularly enough, and eventually it starts to do you. Even writing practice.

A word about “Unimaginable,” last week’s post: Your comments made me cry. They made my heart overflow with gratitude. They reaffirmed everything I already believe in and cherish about the connections between women, between writers and readers, between friends who have never met. I wanted to answer every single one personally — but I also realized that I couldn’t; all I can do, for now, anyway, is keep writing and hope that you understand. I read every one, though, and I particularly loved the way conversations even sprung up between you, readers reaching out and finding one another right here, in this space. That is nothing less than a dream come true. Thank you.

And finally, in answer to some questions I got about about the Wholeheartedness Playlist widget: If you receive this blog as an email, you won’t see the widget. It’s on the website. Just click on the title in your email, and it’ll take you to my website, where the playlist can be found on the bottom left sidebar. (It’s also a bit easier on the eyes to read the post on the website!) Many thanks, and a Happy Wholehearted Valentines Day to all!