Ordinary Days, everywhere (and, finally, the words to the video)

IMG_4292_2A funny thing happened last weekend.  I turned on my computer to check email, and there were a dozen letters from Australia, each bearing kind Happy Mother’s Day wishes from down under.  There were even more messages for me on Facebook.  I was puzzled at first, but then the fifth note I read explained what was going on:  “Your Gift of an Ordinary Day video is going viral in Australia,” a mom of two wrote to me.

Sure enough.  I paid a visit to the YouTube link: 200,000 more clicks in just a couple of days — and suddenly my three-year-old video was inching right up toward 2 million views.  (When I told this to my friend Ann Patchett, she promptly pointed out that Fifty Shades of Grey first went viral in Australia, too, which is probably not relevant, but who can say?  I’m pretty certain her email is the only time the titles Fifty Shades of Grey and The Gift of an Ordinary Day have appeared in the same sentence, and that alone gave me pause.) [continue…]

Reconnecting

Have you ever fallen out of touch with a good friend? You’d really like to call; you miss her. But with every day that passes, it seems harder to reach out. So much time has passed and so much has happened. You wonder, Is it too late to reweave the threads of intimacy? Catching up can be harder than staying close.

The weeks go by, the months, the years, perhaps. More change, more water under the bridge. The life you’re living now isn’t the same one you shared all those yesterdays ago, back when you and your friend knew all the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of each other’s days. Where to start?

That’s the question I’m asking myself this morning as I sit propped up in bed, with my laptop on my knees. Where to start?

For two and a half years, I wrote here each and every week. What began as a way to publicize my book The Gift of an Ordinary Day very quickly became a treasured two-way conversation with you – readers, kindred spirits, new friends. A conversation in which I’ve most certainly received more than I gave.

I posted a weekly reflection for you, and you wrote back, sharing your lives with me. You generously offered wisdom, gratitude, advice, book recommendations, and, most of all, connection. After a while, I couldn’t imagine NOT showing up each week to write these essays. My commitment to myself had transformed into something else altogether: a commitment to a vast web of relationships I’ve come to treasure.

But, I haven’t been a great friend to this blog of late. Months have passed, and my posts have been sporadic. I’ve missed our weekly conversation. At the same time, it’s felt as if time itself has picked up speed. The truth is, I’ve found it hard even to be present for my family, let alone to claim a few quiet hours to sit down and gather my thoughts onto a page.

Not long ago I wrote in an email to a friend that I’ve been humbled, over the last six months or so, both by what life demands of me and by what it offers. A challenge at every turn, it seems. And yet, too, gifts of extraordinary beauty. Lately, it’s been difficult for me to accept those gifts with open hands because I’ve been so consumed by the challenges.

I had a book deadline to meet, and then to meet again, and yet again after that. (There was the deadline for the first draft, back in April; the deadline for revisions in June; and finally, just four days ago, the Big One, for returning the final, copyedited manuscript to the publisher.) I made it. But not easily, and only by leaving much else undone.

At the same time, I’ve been called upon to help loved ones going through unexpected hardships. Caring for a dear friend through a life-threatening health crisis has been both challenging and fulfilling, certainly an opportunity to learn and grow. Trying to figure out how to help our son Jack recover from two debilitating stress fractures in his spine is part of my job as his mom these days. (It probably goes without saying that nineteen-year-old boys in chronic pain are not the easiest creatures to live with.) These last months have been about doctor visits, MRIs and CAT scans, trips to specialists and herbalists, lots of research, blender smoothies and Chinese remedies. Not anyone’s choice; just the way it is right now.

And yet, even in the midst of deadlines and obligations that have felt overwhelming at times, there have been gifts to treasure: A day in spring when all the peonies and irises and lupines bloomed in the garden at the same time. Sitting in the audience with my husband as our son Henry played keyboard for a production of The Music Man on Cape Cod. Relaxing by a fire on our hilltop with Steve and an old friend as 4th of July fireworks filled the night sky. Rounding a corner and seeing this glorious ancient beech tree, its branches aglow with late afternoon light, while on a walk near my friend Margaret’s house.

The demands of my life, I realize, are here to stay. They may shift and change, as what’s urgent one week is supplanted the next by some new need or obligation or crisis. But there’s no such thing as smooth sailing, or an empty road, or a clean slate. Real life is stormy, bumpy, complicated. Perhaps my real challenge is not about ducking my head and leaning into a task with single-minded focus until it’s done (it may never be done!), but about remembering to stop once in a while, to look up, open my hands, and accept the gifts that my life offers me right alongside the challenges.

Already, I sense summer slipping toward fall. The drought in New England has given our thirsty landscape the brittleness of autumn two months early. Time marches on relentlessly, but I don’t have to. I can pause whenever I want to. I can take a deep breath, and decide where I want to place my attention in this moment.

Looking at my calendar, my to-do list, the stack of unsorted mail on the desk, I can allow anxiety to have its way with me. Or, I can choose instead to see a bigger picture, the abundance of my life just as it is.

On this early morning, it feels good to be back here, catching up with you. I have a new book coming out in January. (More on that soon!) I’ve just committed to walking The Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk again this September, in memory of my friend Diane. (More on that soon, too, but first I better put on my sneakers and start training!) I have a stack of unread books by my bed. (I’m eager to share them with you.)

Meanwhile, I am making a commitment to myself for these next few weeks of summer: To meet life’s demands as they arise, but to gratefully accept its gifts as well. I intend to take a swim in the lake, read a book in the hammock, wander through town with an ice cream cone.

And I’m going to stay in closer touch. Because taking time to catch up with a friend is absolutely worth the effort — in fact, it’s really a gift we give to ourselves.

So my friends, hello. It’s good to be back. And I wonder: What has your life been demanding of you this summer? What has it offered?

Poets of the everyday

“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. For the creative artist there is no impoverishment and no worthless place.” — Rilke

I’ve been thinking about these words since I first read them a couple of weeks ago. What does it mean to be a poet of daily life? I often wish I were more creative, wish I possessed whatever spark of genius and imagination it takes to write fiction, to paint the landscape outside my window, to transform a garden bed into a tapestry of color or a fleeting moment into a poem.

And yet, much as I may aspire to make art, on a typical day the most creative thing I do is make dinner. I may practice yoga, talk intimately with a friend, do a good deed, or clean the bathroom – none of which strikes me as being very “artistic.” But Rilke seems to suggest that even such humble tasks can be creative endeavors, so long as they are done with care. If we are truly paying attention, then perhaps life itself becomes a work of art. We call forth the treasures of our ordinary, everyday lives by noticing, by cherishing, by appreciating the beauty that is right in front of us. Which is to say that, viewed in the right way, through the right eyes, everything is extraordinary: the slant of honeyed sun falling across the floor, the speckled globe of a pear ripening on the sill, the orderly profusion of pottery mugs on a shelf, the rise and fall of voices in conversation around the dinner table, the November moon sailing through bare treetops at dusk.

This month, I’ve been most deeply inspired by the collaboration between three women I’ve never met and probably never will, and yet whose lives have come to feel interwoven with my own. The connection began with an email from a woman in Germany who had read “The Gift of an Ordinary Day,” and had the idea to begin photographing daily scenes from her own “ordinary life.” She invited two friends to join her. Each day or so, the women share intimate, unguarded glimpses of their lives in Upper Frankonia, Munich Bavaria, and the Island of Ruegen in Estonia: a foggy morning, a basket of laundry, chickens in the yard, a child at play, an orchid on a window sill. I study these images in search of the women who create them, sensing kindred spirits, like-minded souls, deep affinity.

What began for me as an interesting coincidence – a reader in Germany had somehow found her way to my book! – has come to feel like a spiritual connection that exists beyond barriers of time and place and language. Every morning when I turn on my computer, I’m grateful for these glimpses into lives that may seem perfectly “ordinary” to the women experiencing them but that are, to my American eyes, exotic and beautiful and, yes, poetic. I am honored to be invited in, and I am reminded to look more deeply into the unnoticed nooks and crannies of my own life, to illuminate them with attention and gratitude.

In the garden of our imaginations, we sow and nurture the reality of our lives. What we see, what we choose to notice, grows in value and in beauty because it is beloved. Thanks to the exquisitely graceful, generous work of three strangers, I feel a more intimate connection to my own quiet life in the New Hampshire countryside. And I am reminded, too, of the deep and mysterious connections between us all. We are all human beings sharing this blessed, fragile planet, caretakers of both people and place. Performing the humble tasks of ordinary life with love, we become poets of the everyday, calling forth the treasures that sustain our spirits and feed our souls. And what could be more creative, or more necessary, than that?

To visit A Glimpse of an Ordinary Day: three women, three lives, three locations, click Here.

A birthday for me, a gift for you

I’ve already received exactly what I asked for for my birthday tomorrow. I gave my sons Henry and Jack plenty of advance warning and then I was quite clear about my wishes: Handwritten letters, please. Not e-mails. Not hastily signed store-bought cards. Not presents. Just letters, from each of them to me.

Somewhat to my surprise, they both came through as requested — early, in fact. There are two sealed, handwritten envelopes sitting on the kitchen table at our house, and I can’t wait to open them.

But there are many other gifts, invisible ones, that I find myself thinking about today. The gift of friendship, offered me daily in so many guises and gratefully received. The gift of good health, easily taken for granted until it’s taken away. The gift of mindfulness, always elusive for me, yet always worth cultivating. The gift of gratitude, a choice I can make right now. The gift of the present moment, renewed over and over again without ceasing. The gift of breath — where would I be without it? The gift of marriage, constantly transforming and evolving, challenging me to become my best self. The gift of motherhood, which has shaped and sculpted every response I’ve had to life for the last twenty-one years. The gift of beauty, worth organizing a life around. The gift of memory, filling in all the empty spaces left by loved ones no longer here. The gift of presence, and the realization that there are so many ways to be present if I am really and truly willing to stay with what is. The gift of imagination, ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. The gift of dreams, expecially the ones worth sacrificing for. The gift of silence — expansive, rich, and deep. The gift of touch, love made manifest. The gift of spirit, infusing all creation. The gift of wonder, mine whenever I take time to attune myself to mystery. The gift of kindness, may I offer it generously and accept it with grace. The gift of joy, that most precious and precarious of blessings. The gift of sadness, the measure of darkness that lends meaning to all happiness. The gift of connection, which I experience with every word and thought and good wish shared in this space.

To celebrate my birthday, I would like to offer you a gift — an opportunity to receive the audio version of my book, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, along with a copy of my favorite collection of poems by my very favorite poet, Evidence by Mary Oliver.

I have been reading and re-reading my own cherished copy of Evidence all morning, marveling as always at Oliver’s wisdom, generosity, and grace. How pleased I am to share these poems with you, each one a heartfelt hymn of gratitude.

Here is just a taste, a short poem that speaks directly to me today, as I contemplate my own dreams and aspirations here at the beginning of my fifty-third year.

I Want to Write Something So Simply

I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think —
no you will realize —
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart,
had been saying.
Mary Oliver

To be eligible for one of two copies of Mary Oliver’s Evidence, along with an audio recording of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, leave a comment below. Tell me about a cherished gift in your life. Or, if you wish, just say hello. Your presence here is a gift to me, and I am deeply grateful!

I will draw two names at random after midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 11, using the tool at www.random.org. Winners will be notified by e-mail.

Writing what we know — and a special book to give away

We were in the throes of change: selling a house, moving in with my parents, buying a house, fixing up a house, moving into that house, giving up on fixing up the house, deciding to tear the whole thing down instead, moving back in with my parents, building a house. In the midst of these prolonged real estate dramas, we suffered the strain of pulling up roots in a place that we loved and trying to sink roots down into another that we barely knew. I lost my job. My husband started a business. Meanwhile, we were also trying to parent two wildly different boys, one of whom thought we had ruined his life forever by leaving our “perfect” neighborhood, while the other yearned for a chance to shed his old reputation as the shyest kid in school and start fresh in a new place.

“You should write about this,” friends would suggest, as they watched me flail and struggle and try to make some sense of it all.

“No way,” I’d say. In fact, I was trying to research a book about the pressures of the college application process on today’s over-scheduled, over-burdened teenagers. The problem was, the only teenagers I knew well enough to write about were the two I happened to live with — and I’d already begun to suspect that neither of them would follow a straightforward, predictable path to higher education. When I tried to make broad statements about anything outside of my own experience, I felt like a fraud. I noticed that bits of my own everyday life kept creeping into the manuscript. Pretty soon, as my notes gathered dust, I found myself writing about what I was thinking about: how I wanted to live, what mattered, what made me cry, what I loved about being a mother of growing boys, what I already missed about the days that were over, what I was trying to cherish in the here and now.

Frustrated, discouraged, fearing defeat, I sent a batch of pages off to my editor. “I’m not too excited about all the facts and figures and academic stuff,” she wrote back, “but I love reading about your family.”

I threw away a hundred numbing, belabored pages and finally admitted to myself that, like it or not, I seemed to be writing a memoir.

How I wish I’d had Marion Roach Smith’s brilliant book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, to tell me how to do it. And by “it” I mean both the writing and the living. For what makes Marion such a remarkable guide and teacher is the fact that she knows full well that the writing and the living are inextricably bound together, that the “big stuff” scares us all, both in life and on the page, and that it always comes down to a choice, as she says, “to either flee the room or shove the fear aside and fill the space with something better.”

There was barely an hour that passed as I slogged away on my book that I wasn’t sorely tempted to flee the room. But the thing was, there was barely a day during those years that I didn’t also wish to flee my life. Both the writing and the living felt so hard!

Marion, in her wisdom, reminds us that just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother. In fact, as her own vividly told personal stories and examples make clear, only by staying put, only by hanging in there through the tough stuff, do we find out what we really need to know and what we really have to say. “You have to be present to win,” she says.

Could this disarming, compellingly readable little book possibly be a manual for how to live your life, disguised as a manual telling you how to write about it? I’m not sure, but I do know that you needn’t be a writer to find useful instruction in these pages. For aren’t we all tempted, every single day of our lives, to flee the room? And isn’t it true that only by staying put and doing the work — whether it’s feeling our feelings or speaking our truth or writing our story — do we begin to grow in faith and strength and wisdom?

Marion Roach Smith not only shows us how to “replace the fear with something better” and get our stuff out of our heads and down onto the page, she also reminds us that our stories matter—whether we’re writing an anecdote for the school newsletter, a eulogy for a friend’s funeral, or a memoir to share with the world. In fact, our stories, all of them, matter enough to be worth crafting well. “Learn to write with intent,” she predicts, “and you might learn something about your life.”

I wasn’t able to avail myself of Marion’s expertise as I was trying to figure out what my last book was about, but she has already helped me ask the right questions as I embark on the next. And I am delighted to have become online friends with Marion through her sister Margaret, whose memoir And I Shall Have Some Peace There remains an all-time favorite. When anyone asks me for writerly advice these days, I simply say, “Go buy The Memoir Project, make a pot of tea, and then treat yourself to the most cogent 96-page lesson in writing what you know that you will ever read.” So it is a great pleasure to be able to combine forces with Marion and Margaret to celebrate the publication of this essential book by giving away two copies here.

How to Win 1 of 6 Copies of The Memoir Project

MARION, MARGARET, AND I are each giving away two copies of Marion’s new book “The Memoir Project,” and all you have to do to win is comment, answering the question:

What memoir made a difference to you, and why?

Copy and paste your comment onto all three of our blogs to triple your chances of winning—again, each of us has two copies to share, and we’ll all draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Saturday, June 18.

Comment here.
On Marion’s site
And on Margaret Roach’s, whose lovely book “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” has been hailed as, “A moving, eloquent and joyously idiosyncratic memoir.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Now we are pretty flexible, we three, so even if you don’t want to name a favorite memoir, or you have a title but not a reason why, that’s OK. Simply say, “I want to win,” or “Count me in” or some such, and your entry will be official. But remember: copy and paste it on all three blogs. Good luck! (And we can’t wait to see the booklist you help generate with your replies.)