How to savor (another) freezing February morning

IMG_3754“If your daily life seems of no account, don’t blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its treasures.”  ~ Rilke 

O
pen your eyes in darkness.

Listen to the heat kick on.

Snuggle more deeply into flannel sheets.

Say a prayer of thanks for the roof over your head, your warm house, the hot shower that awaits.

Turn your gaze toward the feathery frost on the window pane.

Allow moonlight to wash away sleep.

Watch stars wink out, the sky lighten by degrees, a scrim of rose etch itself across the mountain.

Rise with the sun. [continue...]

Quiet days

 

twilight in FloridaaYou have traveled too fast over false ground;

Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up

To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain

When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,

Taking time to open the well of color

That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone

Until its calmness can claim you.

           ― John O’Donohue, from “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted”

Hard as it is for my mom to be away from her fourteen-year-old cocker spaniel for a few hours, let alone three days, she couldn’t bear the thought of not being present for her sister’s grandson’s wedding up north this weekend.  My Aunt Gloria’s been gone for three years.  But this winter, my mother says, has been harder than the first one without her; she is missing her big sister more these days, not less.  Being with her extended family, staying in a hotel with my dad in Newport, watching the first grandson take a bride – none of that would fill in the hole carved by loss, but it would make her feel a bit closer to her sister and remind her she wasn’t alone in missing her.  Of course, she was torn between going and staying home with her dog.

“I’ll come down there and take care of Justin, so you can go to the wedding,” I promised her weeks ago, happy to fill in some empty March days on my calendar with a trip to Florida and grateful for any excuse to have a visit with my mom.

“Words Justin knows (but can’t hear),” she wrote in the extensive care-and-feeding manual she left for me.  “Sit. Stay. Off.”  Justin is sweet-natured, deaf, and, above all else, a creature of routine: up to pee at 5 am, breakfast at 5:03, back to bed til 7, dinner at 4:30, a walk at dusk, playtime, bed.  During the day, between periodic call-of-nature visits to a small circle of bleached crab grass in the backyard, he sleeps.

“I’m looking forward to this,” I assured my mother as she packed her suitcase on Friday.  “I’ve been going nonstop since December. Three days alone, with no one who needs me for anything, will be a luxury.”

I meant it.  It feels as if the only conversation I haven’t had lately is one with myself.  So, I had my own plans for the weekend:  disconnect totally and do nothing.  I would read, think, write in my journal. Allow my soul to welcome me back.

What a relief it would be, I was certain, to just close up shop on my life for a couple of days.  I vowed to take a technology holiday — leave my laptop asleep in its case, my phone on vibrate, my emails unread, incoming texts unanswered, my Facebook status unchanged, my Amazon sales figures unchecked.

Yesterday, all alone in my mother’s house, I erected my cathedral of quiet.

And then, moment by moment, I struggled to live inside it.  All day long, I fought against the uneasy, unfamiliar discomfort of keeping company with my own silent, non-doing self.  How humbling, to realize I’ve lately grown so accustomed to distraction and busyness that it’s a challenge to simply stop in one place and be, to inhabit an empty space in time without giving in to the impulse to fill it up.

For months now, I’ve been in high gear, doing not only my normal every-day stuff (shopping, cooking, cleaning, mothering) but also the adrenaline-rush stuff of traveling, giving readings and talks, connecting, and promoting –  what I’ve come to think of as the job of being a person who’s written a book.  And I’ve loved just about every minute of my own thrilling Magical Journey.  It’s been a privilege to visit bookstores all over the country and a joy to hear from readers, to receive their thoughtful, heartfelt letters, to meet new friends and reconnect with old ones.

At the same time, I have to wonder:  have I become so used to being connected somewhere, to something, all the time, that making a deliberate choice to unplug and shut up, even for a day or two, has become a challenge?

“Stop,” I kept reminding myself yesterday, each time I reflexively reached for my phone, “just to check my email,” until at last I just stuck it out of sight in a drawer.

Pausing just to be sounds simple enough in theory, but it can be wildly hard. Making a choice to inhabit a windswept interior emptiness rather than trying to stuff it full of mental furniture feels awkward, even a little scary.  “Is this all there is?”  my busy mind kept demanding, casting about for something, anything, to do or worry about or fixate upon.

Having grown used to velocity as my automatic response to complexity, I’ve become pretty efficient when it comes to getting things done, but somewhat less graceful, apparently, in repose.  Give me a to-do list, and I know how to power through to the bottom line.  But even competence comes at a cost.  Give me a day without an internet connection or a deadline or a self-imposed goal to be met or a finish line to cross, and all my self-doubts and vulnerabilities come rushing out to meet me, jostling for position, demanding to be seen and heard.

I floundered around for a while, at odds with myself, rubbed raw by the rough edges of my own solitude.  It was hard to sit still, hard even to focus deeply and completely on the pages of the book I very much wanted to read.  I did some yoga and tried to match slow steady breaths to slow steady movements.  I took the dog for a walk, frittered the hours away, spoke to no one.  I didn’t try to get Justin to read my lips, as my mom does, or engage in doggie small talk he couldn’t hear, just to break the silence.  I resisted the urge to email a friend, to text my sons, call my husband, or turn on the TV and catch up on Downton Abbey.

In the end, I stretched out in a lawn chair, put down my book, and gazed up into the turquoise expanse of sky. Finally, time slowed down.  Finally, I felt something inside me begin to soften and settle, to release and let go.

This morning, I’ve been reading a memoir called “Until I Say Good-bye,” by Susan Spencer-Wendell, who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago, at the age of forty-four.  Knowing she had, at best, one good year of life left, Susan made a deliberate choice: to plant a garden of memories for her beloved husband and their three young children, and to cultivate joy in whatever time remained for her.

She wrote her book in three months, painstakingly using her one good finger to type into the Notes function on her iPhone.  By the time she was finished, she had lost her mobility, her voice, nearly everything except her courage, her consciousness, and her conviction that although she had no control over her illness, she could control the attitude she brought to her approaching death.  Certain the greatest gift she can give her family is her own acceptance of her fate, Susan is facing the end head on; as her book makes its way in the world, she is preparing, with little fanfare, to leave it.

Last week, following up on an earlier  interview conducted a few months ago when she could still speak, Scott Simon asked Susan how she is doing.  Her written reply to him was simple, straightforward, tremendously moving: “As well as can be expected. My body and voice become weaker every single day, but my mind becomes mightier and more quiet. You do indeed hear more in silence.”

She is right, of course.  And so, with gratitude now, and a good bit more ease than I felt yesterday, I sit outside at my mother’s quiet house, beneath the rustling palms, and watch the sun go down. I receive John O’Donohue’s words of blessing into my being, and feel what it means to imitate the habit of twilight.  I wonder whether, if I abide here long enough, a well of color might somehow open within me, too, just as the evening sky itself grows diaphanous at last light, the clouds translucent veils of rose and gold and mauve.

 

Magical Journey News

On the web

I never thought much about how my yoga practice has shaped my work as a writer, and vice versa, until Kate Hopper at Motherhood and Words, asked me some probing questions about both craft and practice in this lovely interview.

Other recent interviews and blog posts I’ve loved are:

Ali Edwards’s beautiful review. Click here.

An interview HERE, with Harriet Cabelly at her inspiring and rapidly expanding Rebuild Your Life site.

Amy Makechnie’s  brand new and engaging “fascinating person” series,  HERE.

 

Appearances

There’s a bit more magical journeying in my future, and a few new events on the calendar that I’m very excited about — each one an opportunity to meet wonderful, like-minded women, to listen and share our stories, and to reweave and reaffirm our connections with one another.

Next:  A reading and conversation at the Annapolis Book Festival on April 13 with Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of The Last Best Cure.  (More about this terrific book, and a give-away, here very soon!) In the meantime, do visit Donna’s website and get to know her there.

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 were thrilled to be invited to speak and read at a luncheon hosted by The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT, on Friday, April 19.  Details to follow; in the meantime, you can call the store for more info.

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 next month, 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 I can finally come visit her.

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! 

As always, HUGE thanks to all of you who are creating this community of like-minded souls and keeping the word of mouth going by writing reviews on Amazon, showing my video to your friends, or sharing my blog posts on your Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  Every week, this newsletter is going out to more people — there are well over 2,ooo subscribers now, but I’d love to widen this circle even more.  My Magical Journey Facebook page, which started with exactly zero followers in November, now has nearly 2500.  (That really DOES feel like magic.)

 

 

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!)

Solitude

“Solitude is the soul’s holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.”

—  Katrina Kenison

It’s the first day I’ve been alone for three weeks.  Henry left for a month in London on Monday.  Then I drove Jack back to school and got home last night in time for a late dinner and bed.  This morning: silence.  I’m feeling a little blue, sad that these weeks of intense family togetherness have come to an end. The to-do list awaits and the house needs a good post-holiday cleaning from top to bottom. No one is asking for pancakes.

I remind myself that my boys are off doing exactly what they should be doing, out in the world.  And I am alone here, with a pile of work put off  until January and  a choice to make.  I can give in to loneliness and letdown as I strip sheets off beds and clean out the refrigerator, or I can allow myself  a little mini-vacation of the spirit, the pleasure of appreciating my own company.  The chance to take a deep breath, begin to catch up with myself, and create something new in this new year.

I tell myself that after a couple of weeks of cooking, talking, negotiating, joking, cajoling, laughing, and just generally focusing all of my time and attention and energy outward, it will feel good to pause and be still.  To turn inward and reconnect with my own quiet center.

And so, feeling a little radical, I even resist the urge to turn on my computer this morning, savoring instead a more complete aloneness than the internet will allow.  I have a cup of coffee, kiss my husband good-bye, do some yoga,  watch the sky brighten.  Gradually, my heart lightens, too.

And then I flip open my laptop, start looking through my e-mail backlog from the last week or so, and find this quote waiting for me, sent by a reader.  “Did you see,” she wrote in her note from December 27, “you were Oprah’s quote of the day.”  Sure enough, there is my name, beneath these words I have no memory of ever writing.

Slowly, it comes back to me.  Ten years ago, I wrote an article for the Oprah magazine about solitude.  This, I realize, is what I must have said back then.  As if I had it all figured out.  It does sound kind of wise and knowing. But this morning, a decade and change later, I’ve had to learn the truth of these words all over again, as if I had never written them at all.

It must just be that we mortals never really get life all figured out.  The brain may be overachieving and whip-smart, but the soul is a remedial, wayward student, forever forgetting yesterday’s lessons.  I’ve always known that one reason I write is to remind myself to do as I say.  Now, I’m also realizing that I have to keep learning and practicing the same things over and over again — silence, patience, acceptance, faith, gratitude for what is — until slowly, bit by bit, what I know to be true becomes who I am.  To say that it’s a process is an understatement.  It is, I suppose, the work of a lifetime.