choosing joy

I’ve spent the last few weeks rummaging around in the basement, carting boxes of stuff off to Goodwill, decorating for the holidays, making granola and other gifts from the kitchen. When my mind is unsettled, I have a hard time sitting still. Better to put my body to work doing something physical that manifests visible results, whether it’s baking cookies or cleaning the shower drain (I did that this morning).

Still, it feels strange to be entering the holiday season, stringing lights and cutting greens, when there’s so little cause for celebration in the world at large and when so much of what we hold sacred (truth, democracy, and decency for starters) is under full-scale assault. To pay close attention to what’s happening in our country is to wrestle with painful realities most of us couldn’t have begun to imagine even a year ago. It is to open, as Annie Proulx recently observed, “a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.”

And yet, it is December, time in our house to put up a tree, to welcome grown children home, to bake cranberry bread and wrap gifts and gather with friends and family. What I always love most about these weeks before Christmas is the opportunity to connect with loved ones near and far, sending packages off in the mail, exchanging cards and holiday letters, lighting candles and gathering around crowded dinner tables. But this year feels different, as if the darkness of our human affairs has dimmed the lights of hope and faith and joy. [continue…]

parenting advice
from a 24-year-old son

A few weeks ago, I called my son Jack for advice.

I’d been invited to California to speak to parents of teenagers, and I was just starting to think about what I could say that might actually be of practical use, especially to parents whose kids are giving them cause to worry. It occurred to me that the best person to consult was my own son, whose challenging adolescence is still fresh and raw in my memory.  (I imagine it’s pretty vivid in his memory as well.)

At twenty-four, Jack is sober, self-sufficient, and making a difference in the world.  Working full-time as a mentor in a residential treatment center for troubled teenaged girls, he’s been able to transform his own youthful experiences with addiction and recovery into a gift to others who are struggling.  Had he not walked this walk himself, he couldn’t extend his hand so whole-heartedly to the young people in his care now. He’s received extensive training on the job, first during a year-long stint as wilderness-therapy counselor and, for the last seven months, as a team member at this therapeutic facility in North Carolina.

But I think he’d  agree that his effectiveness at work is as much a product of his own first-hand knowledge as it is a result of his training.  In fact, it’s both, in combination with his innate curiosity, his sense of humor, his gift for listening deeply, and his calm demeanor, even when things get tense and crazy.  Jack isn’t attached to being right and he doesn’t get flustered, the way we parents so often do. Yet when he speaks of the young women with whom he works, I hear the pride in his voice, especially as he describes moments of growth and change and healing.  I couldn’t be prouder of him.

And as it turned out, Jack really was the perfect person for me to call.  “I figured you might have some thoughts about how parents can stay connected to their teenagers,” I said.  “I do,” he replied.  “Every single girl I work with has some kind of conflict with her parents. I think about these kinds of things all the time.” [continue…]

joy, tempered

img_1303I’ve just flicked on the white Christmas lights – there are bright, tiny twinkles on the porch, on the tree, around the fireplace. Earlier, I ran some errands in town and bought groceries at the store where the guys behind the counter know every customer by name. I stopped in at the local bookstore to sign a few copies of my book for special orders. Back home, I filled the birdfeeder and stood outside for awhile, watching the sky change color and waiting for the hungry chickadees to come close. I sat in the kitchen with a cup of tea and ordered a couple of final gifts. The day flew by. It was good, full of reminders of what I love about our life  in this small New England town. And now dusk is falling, along with the temperature; by tomorrow morning it’s predicted to be below zero. Our son Jack, home for this week, is off playing basketball with a friend. My husband is still at work. And there is time, just enough time, to write a few words before I have to start making dinner.

Usually I would relish this moment – a brief pause in the midst of life to gather some thoughts about the meaning of the living. And yet, I’ve been hesitant to write lately. [continue…]

choosing love over fear

img_1151-1“The world is violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”   ~ Tennesee Williams

I wonder what would happen if we were all to commit ourselves, over these next months, to small gestures of love, healing, and reconciliation? Would the national mood of distrust and divisiveness change for the better?

What would happen if we took our cues from the graceful, forceful words spoken yesterday by Hillary Clinton and President Obama, and by the President-elect as well, all of whom encouraged  Americans to come together now, and to do whatever we can, wherever we are, to repair our torn social fabric?

What would happen if those of us who grieved the results of this election chose today, and in the days ahead, to transform that grief into renewed determination — determination to create a kinder, safer, more tolerant country, one in which to be a citizen means to uphold our deepest national values of freedom and dignity and respect for all Americans?

What if we were to stake out this small territory as our first patch of common ground: a respect for our imperfect yet precious democracy, manifested by an insistence, from both sides, that the President-elect    start making good, right now, on his election-eve promise to reunite the country?  [continue…]

happy reports

IMG_0198
The other morning, I snapped the leash onto Tess’s collar and headed out for a walk. We followed our old route, down the hill from our house, onto the bike path toward town, and home again. Nothing too ambitious, yet this was the first time in two years I’ve taken this particular four-mile walk without feeling pain. It was also the first time since having both of my hips replaced last winter that I felt confident enough in my new hardware, and in my healing, to risk having Tess lunge unexpectedly or pull me off balance. I’m strong enough now to hold onto her, strong enough to hike back up the hill without pausing to catch my breath, strong enough to do the whole loop in under an hour. And so it is that a daily ritual I once took for granted has been transformed into an experience that feels special, one I’m grateful for.

IMG_8921So much of what I’ve struggled with, and written about, over the last couple of years has had to do with loss and grief, what Jack Kornfield so evocatively calls “the storm clouds of the heart.” Sitting alone in a quiet room, finding words that both pay homage to the richness of human experience while also acknowledging how vulnerable I often feel in the face of that experience, has given me a way to come to terms with some of the inevitable challenges of growing older — the illnesses and deaths of dear friends, concern for the struggles of a young adult son, life chapters ending, intimate relationships transforming, elderly parents facing their mortality, a body that’s showing the wear and tear of nearly six decades of hard use.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether “ordinary days” would ever return. Or if in fact the best days were behind me now and my own “ordinary” would forever more be tinged with sadness, a kind of constant, chronic, low-grade grief, like the slight limp I’m learning to live with as result of having one leg that ended up being an eighth of an inch longer than the other.

The answer, it turns out, is no. [continue…]