The Soul of Solstice

dreamstime_s_31289215One December when our sons were little, I hung a piece of paper painted a deep dark blue in our kitchen.  “A sky,” I told them.  I painted another piece of paper gold, cut out about a hundred small stars and put them in a basket, along with a glue stick.

My hope was to distract the boys a bit from the idea of “getting” things for Christmas, and to shift the emphasis instead to the kinds of simple acts of kindness that actually make us feel good inside ourselves.

I knew I wouldn’t have much luck telling them that the shortest route to happiness isn’t paved with possessions.  (Try explaining that to a six- year-old who has been trying to prioritize his Christmas list.) They wouldn’t believe me if I suggested that more stuff doesn’t ever equal a better life.  Or that a sure-fire antidote to restlessness and craving is to do something nice for someone else.

I wanted them to discover for themselves the joy of giving, the deeper meaning of the season.

And so, for every random, unsolicited act of kindness anyone in the family did during the day, we placed a star into the sky.  Each night at dinnertime, we turned off all the kitchen lights, lit candles in an Advent wreath on our table, held hands and said our grace.  And then, as the painted sky filled with stars, we talked about opportunities we’d each found during the day to do good deeds.

The December of Good Deeds was such a long time ago.  For some unknown reason, we only did it once.  And yet it is one of my favorite holiday memories, ever.

Last night, Henry and Steve and I grabbed the afghans and lined up on the couch together to watch a couple of Tivoed episodes of “The Daily Show.”  The clips of shoppers mauling each other in a race to claim discounted printers, dollar DVDs, and Rachel Ray cookware on Black Friday were more horrifying than funny.  Jon Stewart didn’t need to say much about the stabbing in Virginia over a parking space, the shooting at Kohl’s, or the mayhem at Wal-Mart.  There was no need to comment on Sarah Palin’s claim last week that she loves the commercialization of Christmas, because it reminds us all that this is the “most cheerful holiday on the calendar.”  All he had to do was play the footage.

This morning, I woke up early, still haunted and disturbed by those scenes.  We are warm and dry and safe and well-fed here.  There is nothing anyone in my family needs or wants so badly that we would line up outside a store at 6 a.m. to get it. No one went shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

But I also realize what a luxury our comfort is.  I don’t want to take any of what I have for granted – not the food in our refrigerator, not the heat rising from the grates on the floor, not the laptop on which I type these words, nor the fact that, at 6:30 in the morning, I am privileged enough to be sitting on the couch in my pajamas writing a blog post, rather than driving through darkness to get to work on time.  I can’t even begin to know what it’s like to live in a constant state of not-enough.

And yet, I’m certainly not immune to the pressures of the season.  [continue...]

Summer Reading — Don’t Miss This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>SUMMER READING!

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

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

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

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

What If?

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

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

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

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

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

JIMMY FUND MARATHON WALK UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

Slow Journey

I’ve spent the last three weeks in one place doing one thing. And, although I will leave my mother’s house two days from now with a stack of manuscript pages, I will also leave with a great deal more knowledge about how I get in my own way.

There are people, many of them dear friends of mine, who can’t wait to sit down alone and shape their thoughts and feelings into sentences and paragraphs. I so wish I were one of them. There are some who have learned to trust their creative process, others who entertain a muse, some who simply feel most alive when they are creating. I am not any of these people, either.

For me, writing is a slow, halting journey from experience to thought to written word. It is a wonder I do it at all, given how inefficiently I travel, and how adept I am at coming up with countless more “productive” ways to spend my time. Show me a sink full of dirty dishes to address, or a few emails to answer, or an 8 a.m. yoga class, and all my mental synapses go into flight and alight mode. My house is never cleaner than when I have a deadline, my yoga practice never stronger than when I’m in the middle of a writing project. Here in Florida, in my mom’s back bedroom, flight is not an option. I came all the way down here to sit in a chair and fight my own little battle with myself.

Last week my friend, the extraordinary (and extraordinarily prolific) author Beth Kephart wrote this about the craft of memoir: “We are speaking about how we shape what we have lived, what we have seen. About how we honor what we love and defend what we believe in. Makers of memoir dwell with ideas and language, with themselves. They counter complexity with clarity. They locate a story inside the contradictions of their lives—the false starts and the presumed victories, the epiphanies that rub themselves raw nearly as soon as they are stated.”

Dwelling with myself. That really is my challenge. It is so much easier, so much more tempting, to turn away, to get busy doing something else, to skim along on the surface of my life instead of stopping, sitting still, going inside, and going deep. To write, or to read, about the inner life is to believe that what we think and how we feel matters. To be a friend of memoir is to stake a claim for the significance of the examined life. It is to say that our inner narratives are as important as the activities and achievements, the successes and failures, that fill our days. It is to say that locating the story within the contradictions of our lives is a worthy pursuit.

“We read,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “to remember that we are not alone.” It is also why we write. To remember that we have much to learn from our most difficult conversations with ourselves and with each other. And that in sharing the truth of who we are and how we struggle, we remind another struggling someone that they do not journey alone.

Thanks to all of you who contributed suggestions to the “Wholeheartedness” playlist. Next week my in-house tech support son, Henry, will be home. Together, we’ll compile the list and post it here. Till then, feel free to add your favorite songs. (I’ve been listening to the ones I didn’t know and I have to say, I think we’re on to something: it’s a great list of heart-opening, uplifting music!)

Occupy Downtown

Every year at this time, I find myself thinking about how to make the holiday season simpler and more meaningful. More joyful and less stressful. A reflection of our family’s values and what really matters to us, rather than a last-minute scramble to make sure there are enough wrapped packages under the tree.

Last weekend, while checking things off my to-do list downtown, I suddenly had a revelation: I am so lucky to live in a town where there still IS such a thing as “downtown.”

And that’s when I decided that, much as I appreciate the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, my own theme this holiday season is going to be: “Occupy Downtown.”

My hometown is still a place where you can buy organic vegetables or a snowblower, a cup of pea soup to go or a fair-trade basket from Peru, art supplies or plumbing supplies, antique linens or a toy for a toddler, a hand knit hat or a pair of hiking boots, local honey or imported cheese. You can browse at the Toadstool, attend a poetry reading, eat lunch at the diner, stroll through an art gallery, and go to a movie. Or you can drop off your dry cleaning, pick up batteries and trash bags, bring a load of cans to the recycling center, and get your oil changed. Chances are, wherever you go, someone will know your name. The bag boy at the market will carry your groceries out to your car. The owner of the clothing store will know it’s your birthday month and what size jeans you wear. The clerk in the bookstore will have saved the last copy of Joan Didion just for you.

This is the way small-town life is supposed to be. This is my definition of the good life. It is also a way of life that is vanishing before our eyes. If we want our downtowns to survive, we have to inhabit them.

“Out-sourcing” is not just something big corporations do, it’s a habit I’ve fallen into myself. How often do I click a button and order from Amazon, instead of buying from a shopkeeper right here in town? More often than I like to admit. The truth is, I can buy every single thing I need or want locally. And yet too many of my dollars end up elsewhere, in the well-stuffed pockets of huge corporations that have no connection with my everyday life.

Well, I’m done. I care about the place I live and I care about the people who make this town the lively, vibrant, inviting community it is. These folks don’t live on air. They depend on cash register receipts. Their stores can’t continue to exist just for my idle sight-seeing and window-shopping pleasure; they need me — they need all of us — to walk through the doors and open our wallets.

And so, I vow here and now to Occupy Downtown this holiday season. I’m shopping in my own back yard, and no where else. I may buy less, but I’ll feel good about where every dollar lands. I’ll take time to chat with the shopkeepers and let them know how grateful I am that they’re here. Simple. Meaningful. Stress free.

I invite you to join me. Occupy your own downtown. Swear off one-click ordering, and go out and see what that funky little shop on the corner has to offer. Our dollars have power. When we spend them locally, we put money back into the towns we love — for city services, road repairs, schools. We support the businesses that meet our needs and desires, that hire our neighbors, that donate to our causes, and that enrich our lives. And we connect face-to-face with real people instead of interfacing with computer screens and feeding the coffers of anonymous corporations.

A holiday gift for you!

I’d love to send you a Christmas gift from my town. Leave a note here and share the “Occupy Downtown” message someplace else — Facebook, Twitter, a blog, whatever. I will draw a name at random after midnight on November 23 to receive a special gift from my town.

And speaking of independent bookstores. . .

My dear friend Ann Patchett is doing a pretty amazing job of occupying downtown herself. When the last independent bookstore in Nashville closed its doors, she decided to open her own. But she’s under no illusions; even a bookstore owned by a best-selling author can’t exist without customers. As she says, “This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your barcode. If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”

Here’s the whole story — page one of today’s New York Times.

Wilderness

For years my friend Maude has been saying that we should go to her little cabin in Maine. Somehow, although we talk about it every summer, we’ve never actually managed to set aside the time to make the trip. Leaving home means finding someone to water the garden, tidying up the desk, answering the emails, making sure that kids and husbands and dogs and all other commitments are covered. Easier to murmur, “someday, maybe,” and put the adventure off for another year.

wilderness - Version 2I’m so glad that this time, when she asked, I just said yes. It’s a five-hour drive door to door, a journey from civilization into remote wildnerness – dirt roads, moose, rugged mountains, vast lakes. Maude warned me that we’d be roughing it — no plumbing, no phone service, no internet, no “amenities.” But nothing could have prepared me for what we got instead of an indoor toilet and wi-fi: the wild beauty, the stillness, the sensuous pleasure of a wood-fired sauna, skinny dipping under the stars, drinking hot tea in bed together late at night, sharing stories.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” naturalist John Muir wrote, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” I am just back from the woods, still assimilating the memories of this sacred, rugged place. But already, I find myself yearning to return. A taste of wilderness has whet my appetite for beauty as well as bread. Stripped down to bare essentials – food, fire, water, air – I experienced what it means to simply be a receiver. Open, unbounded, receptive to all kinds of knowing and seeing. Leaving conveniences and distractions behind, it is easy to rediscover what is of real value: our own vulnerable, wild souls and our membership in the vast web of life. The timeless dance of sunlight and shadow, earth and sky, water and mountain. The cries of loons, the gift of friendship, the pleasure of a hammock strung between trees, simple food, good conversation, a sound sleep in a bed at water’s edge.

Home again, I find myself cranky and out of sorts, feeling hemmed in, burdened by the “stuff” of my life. I wonder if I can find a way, even here in the midst of busyness, to stay in touch the silence inside? How disciplined would I have to be to reduce the distractions in my life, to begin to honor and protect my connection with my own hungry spirit?