Paradise in Plain Sight (and a give-away)

82522Come see the garden,” my new online friend said to me, years ago. We had never met, barely knew each other through the ether, and yet here she was, inviting me to her sanctuary.

I was a New Hampshire housewife contemplating a field of granite rocks beyond my kitchen window. She was a west coast Zen priest, the rightful inheritor of a venerable Japanese garden tucked away in a suburb of LA.

What did we have in common? Perhaps it was something as simple as the belief that an ordinary life is a gift to be reckoned with — that folding socks and driving the carpool and washing supper dishes are opportunities for growth and grace. And we also shared this: a desire to fully inhabit the present moment by learning to pay attention to the ground beneath our own two feet.

It doesn’t sound like much — being quiet, noticing where you are, appreciating what you see, realizing that you already possess what you’ve been looking for because you already are everything you seek.  Of course, this kind of seeing, this kind of unvarnished intimacy with one’s self, is also the task of a lifetime. Hard work. Simple. Not simple. Endless. Worth it.

So, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that we first “met” because our books crossed each other’s doorsteps. [continue...]

Why I write: “We still and always want waking”

photoI’ve been fascinated, over the last month or so, to read so many of my favorite bloggers’ answers to the following questions about their writing process.  (Don’t we all want to know what inspires the writers we love to do what they do?)

Today, thanks to Nicki Gilbert’s invitation, it’s my pleasure to hop on this train and try to put my own writing into some kind of context.  And it’s an even greater pleasure to introduce three fellow writers I consider among my must-reads, Jeanne Henriques, whose gorgeous photos and vivid descriptions of her ex-pat life give rise to all sorts of fantasies; author Beth Kephart, who writes about books and the writing life with sustained insight, eloquence, and passion; and Amy VanEchaute, new to the blogging world and already accruing many devoted readers at her exquisitely executed site My Path With Stars Bestrewn.

 A little background. . .

Fifteen years ago, when my two sons were small, I found myself haunted by a lack I couldn’t even name.  I had a steady editing job I could do from home, babysitting help during those working hours, a comfortable house in the suburbs, two precious little boys and a husband I loved.  A “good” life.   And yet I juggled all the balls – mothering, working, household chores, activities, socializing, going and doing and getting – with a sense I was missing something essential. As my children grew and entered school, as I got busier and our days more complicated, this inchoate longing only intensified.

One afternoon, while sitting on the sofa with my five-year-old son, crocheting mitten strings as snowflakes drifted past the window,  I finally realized what this painful yearning was: a desire to inhabit my own life more fully. Not to do more, but to be more.  To have more quiet moments just like this one. And so I began systematically, and a bit ruthlessly, to simplify our family life. I also began to write about it.  Having spent years as a literary editor, I never imagined myself as a writer.  But suddenly I had something I wanted – actually, needed is not too strong a word here – to say. I needed to remind myself, again and again, what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to lead.

Writing demanded that I sit still and pay attention.  It required time, reflection and, most of all, a confrontation with my innermost self.  If I really wanted to inhabit my life, it seemed, then the best way to do it was to slow down enough to notice the details.  And then, by subtle alchemy, something inside shifted. As I began to shape words, the words I wrote began to shape me.  [continue...]

Laurie Colwin — my mentor in the kitchen & on the page

photo copy 2 - Version 2I once bought a black speckled canning pot, two boxes of Ball jars, and twelve pounds of dusky Italian plums in memory of an author I loved.

For years, I’ve suspected I was one of a few remaining Laurie Colwin aficionados, a smallish but loyal band of readers of a certain age and sensibility who still hold her close in our hearts, afford her books prime space on our shelves, and continue to make her signature dishes in our kitchens.

So it was rather wonderful, though a bit startling, to discover in the pages of the New York Times this week that I’m not alone after all. That in fact, in the more than twenty years since her death, Laurie’s following has only grown, attracting “a new, cultishly devoted generation of readers,” many of whom are in their thirties or even younger.

Turns out, Laurie Colwin is bigger than ever. Her books, never out of print, are selling briskly. Some of her most zealous disciples today were toddlers when she died in 1992. Somehow, knowing about her expanding fan base gives me hope — not only for this new generation of readers, secret romantics, and home cooks, but also for the survival of such humble institutions as tea parties, afternoon picnics, and family dinners. [continue...]

“Handling the Truth”–the perils and pleasures of memoir (and how to win this book!)

handling_the_truthFINALI don’t quite remember how Beth Kephart and I first met; it feels as if we’ve been friends forever. More than two decades ago, we were young mothers at the same time.  We bore babies within a year of each other – beautiful, sweet-souled sons who didn’t fit the mold or pass the tests or walk or talk on schedule. Sons we loved passionately, observed endlessly, fretted over, and prayed for.

Motherhood gave each of us our first subject.  And I suspect we both began to write for much the same reason: not because we had things figured out, but because we didn’t.  Alone with our wondering and our worries, we turned to the page; perhaps it seemed to each of us the safest, most accessible place to wrestle with our mysterious maternal baggage — the unanswerable questions, irrational fears, and secret self-doubts, all inextricably bound up with our faith and hope and unwavering dedication to the vulnerable, precious beings we’d delivered out of our bodies and into the world. Writing about the joys and heartbreaks of raising boys who seemed destined to forge their own solitary paths through the untrammeled territory of childhood, we found our footing as both mothers and writers.  And then, through grace or happenstance, we found each other.  [continue...]

Inhabiting a moment

bed at dusk“Everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes.” — James Salter, “The Art of Fiction No. 133,” The Paris Review

On the bed where I sit cross-legged, leaning against the headboard: eyeglasses, a couple of paperbacks, a new but already much loved hardcover novel, half-read, its pages folded over, the margins scattered with lightly penciled exclamations, each one a silent, emphatic yes. Two pens, gray and black, a notebook with a dark brown cover and magnetic clasp. A pile of down pillows pushed aside, the familiar quilt, softened by age and use, sun-faded. The folded comforter.

Beyond the tall triptych of windows, the view that is the backdrop of all my days and nights. Sloping fields still patched with snow, the stone walls that define our edges here, meandering tendrils of wood smoke curling skyward, the final exhalations of a slow-burning brush pile. The maple tree that’s almost close enough to touch, its dark limbs silhouetted against a twilight sky: rose, transparent blue, violet and gold. The fading palette of an April dusk. Tiny, tight-fisted buds where just yesterday there were none.

A platoon of robins that descends as if summoned to the yard. They work away at the newly bared patches of earth, eyes cocked like surveyors taking measure of the land. The mushy, receding snow. The flat, matted grass. A lone yellow crocus still clenched shut, withholding its bloom. The distant mountains drenched for one singular instant in the day’s last light, already slipping into shadow as the sky drains of color. The ticking clock on the bedside table. The quiet way evening settles in.

One son on his way tonight to New York City — hopeful, off to answer a call, a long-shot opportunity to take one small step closer to his Broadway dream. The odds aren’t good. He knows that but goes anyway. This is what it is be twenty-three and wishing for something, anything, to happen — you say yes and figure out the details later. The brief heart-tug when he left an hour ago, fresh shaven, clothes shoved into a pack, one eye on the clock, car keys jangling in his hand. Imagining him tomorrow morning at ten, climbing the stairs of some building in Times Square, giving his name at the door, slipping into a much-coveted seat at a pre-Broadway workshop where, just maybe, he can convince somebody he’d be a useful guy to have around.

From the kitchen below, the muffled sound of a Celtics game on TV. The rise and fall of my younger son’s voice and his dad’s responses, their staccato, companionable conversation punctuated by alternating cheers and cries of despair. The pleasurable stillness of the house in the hour after dinner when the dishes are done. The slow, unwinding hours before bed. The sense of embrace.

All week, I’ve been thinking about the line quoted above, Salter’s idea that “everything that is not written down disappears, except for certain imperishable moments.” By imperishable, I assume he means the big ones – the birth of a child, a phone call bringing good tidings or bad news, a vow spoken, a declaration of love, of betrayal. We don’t need to preserve those moments that instantly engrave themselves upon our hearts; for better and for worse they become part of who we are, our own unwritten enduring history.

But everyday life — the life we fumble through and take for granted and get distracted by – this ordinary life is comprised of little else but perishable moments, random strings of details, most of them barely worthy of our notice: the slant of sun across the breakfast table, the coffee steaming in the mug, the brush of a hand across a brow, the dog’s head in your lap, a son’s casual, quick embrace, a handful of stars flung across a vast night sky, few notes worked out on the piano. The flotsam and jetsam that add up to days lived, days forgotten.

It takes a kind of determined willingness to pay attention, an eye deliberately refreshed and attuned to nuance. And it takes time, time I rarely spare of late, to pause long enough to truly see. To sit in silence and slowly, haltingly, put what is fleeting and ephemeral into words. The inescapable truth of the present moment: it’s already gone by the time I manage to set it down upon a page.

And yet, I do believe there’s something to be said for trying. Something to be said for inhabiting stillness and then looking out at everything as if for the first time. For me, it is always the same lesson, one I learn by lingering in one place for a while and softening my gaze. Making myself at home in the moment means allowing time and space for each thing to become wholly itself, distinct and beautiful in its own way, each bearing its own secret revelation.

What I’m noticing as I sit in bed this evening and take stock of the fading, golden light, the muffled sounds of home, the unimportant particulars of here and now, is this: the simple act of recalibrating my attention calls me back into relationship with my life.

Perhaps a day will come when I will be grateful even for this humble record, this snapshot of an unremarkable time. I still believe with all my heart in the gift of an ordinary day. But I also have to remind myself, again and again, to accept that gift for what it is: proof that every moment offers another quiet opportunity to be amazed.

So, why not try this? Close your eyes. Draw a deep breath in and then exhale a long, deep breath out. Step gently through the opening, into now. Allow your eyes to open quietly, as if you are drawing back, a curtain. See whatever is at hand. This is where you are. Before the moment sheds its skin and assumes a new shape, weave a skein of words around it. Take a picture. Say “thank you” out loud and feel the texture of those words on your tongue. See how the very act of noticing is something akin to wonder.