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.
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.)