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!

Wholeheartedness practice — and a book for you

Last week, I wrote about wholeheartedness, a word that truly seemed to pick me, rather than the other way around, for 2012. On New Year’s Day, my last morning at Kripalu, having accepted my word, I decided that I would simply allow myself to live into it.

Moment by moment, I would try to do the loving thing, whatever that might be. Instead of second guessing myself, worrying about what might happen next, or trying to come off a certain way, I would set my foot down firmly on the side of love over fear. And so, at the risk of being the one who loves more, I sat down and wrote a note to a friend, just to say, “you are important to me.” At the risk of being silly, I emailed my husband to tell him I love him, as much when we’re apart as when we’re together. At the risk of seeming mushy, I let my son Henry know how much it meant to me that he was willing to spend the New Year’s weekend eating brown rice and doing yoga with his mom, instead of hanging out with his friends.

Back at home, I made dinner for the family, lit the candles, held my kids’ hands as we said grace together, and, at the risk of appearing vulnerable, allowed my full heart to overflow. The next morning, Henry and Steve left early for the airport and Henry’s flight back to Minnesota, and I went hiking, arriving at the top of Pack Monadnock in time to watch the sun come up. Standing there alone on the top of a wind-whipped mountain at dawn, overcome by a sense of awe at the vastness and beauty of this world, I also realized that I felt more connected to myself than I have in a long while, a little more at ease in my skin and a little more accepting of the raw intensity of my own emotions.

“Wholehearted,” it seemed, wasn’t really a resolution I had to keep. In fact, it felt more like a choice, one I could make moment to moment, a way of inhabiting my life that feels akin to faith. Faith that life is already good, faith that I already have what I need, faith that I’m enough as I am, faith that things are just fine as they are, and faith that, no matter what the circumstance and even when I don’t have a clue what to do, the loving thing is always my best bet. What a relief. And what a revelation. I kind of thought I’d just invented a whole new concept: Wholeheartedness!

I went home and had breakfast with my son Jack, and then I sat down to write a blog about Wholeheartedness. Within a few hours of posting it, as I read through the thoughtful, generous comments on this site and on Facebook, I learned, of course, that there is already an entire Wholehearted Living movement afoot — and that I’m just one more latecomer to the wholehearted conversation.

No matter. I am happy to be here, thrilled to jump in and learn more, to share what I discover, and to encourage you, too, in the words of Wholeheartedness pioneer Brene Brown, to “let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.”

I have just finished reading Brene’s wonderful book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” and can’t recommend it highly enough. My own copy is full of folded pages and underlined passages.

A passage about courage particularly resonates with me. The root of “courage” is cor, Latin for “heart.” And in one of its earliest forms the word “courage” meant something very different than it does today. Courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s whole heart.” This, I realize, is what is required of all writers. It’s how I want to live. It’s how I want to be in relationship with the people I love. And, well, speaking and writing honestly about who we really are and what we’re really feeling is scary stuff. “Ordinary courage,” Brene suggests, “is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”

Brene’s TED talk on vulnerability and worthiness was one of the top ten TED talks of 2011. Pour yourself a cup of tea, treat yourself to a twenty-minute break, and give it your wholehearted attention. And make sure to visit her terrific blog, Ordinary Courage, where, as it turns out, she writes this week about the word that found her for 2012.

Elisabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open” is a wholehearted manual for living through difficult times. Given to me by a dear friend two years ago, when I was going through a difficult time of my own, it has remained my go-to book when I need to be reminded that every challenge I face makes me stronger, that suffering enlarges my heart, that a “whole” life includes both light and dark, joy and sorrow, emptiness and fullness. “So often,” Lesser writes, we “tune out the call of the soul. Perhaps we fear what the soul would have to say about choices we have made, habits we have formed, and decisions we are avoiding. Perhaps if we quieted down and asked the soul for direction, we would be moved to make a big change. Maybe that wild river of energy, with its longing for joy and freedom, would capsize our more prudent plans, our ambitions, our very survival. Why should we trust something as indeterminate as a soul? And so we shut down.”

As I struggle to write a book I feel uncertain about, agree to speaking engagements that make my knees shake despite being months away, and wonder what, exactly, my nearly grown children still need from me and how to give it to them, I remind myself that nothing really needs to be as complicated as I make it. I don’t have to change who I am, I simply have to be who I am. I can tune in to the call of my soul. I can live wholeheartedly. I can embrace the gift of imperfection. I can do the loving thing and trust that love really is enough.

I am seriously thinking about creating a Wholehearted Playlist; when I do, I’ll share it. Meanwhile, here’s the song I’ve played a couple of times every single day since January 1, just to remind me of who I really am – and of how a really great song can set the tone for an entire day. Have a listen to Girish’s “Diamonds in the Sun,” definitely my song for 2012.

02 Diamonds In the Sun

What piece of music says “wholehearted” to you? Leave a comment here – or, better yet, a suggestion for the Wholehearted Playlist — and you may win a copy of Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I would love to share her work with all of you, but since I can’t do that, I’ll choose two names at random after midnight on January 16 to receive the books.

Here’s to singing our song in this new year, wholeheartedly!