Still hard, and more beautiful than ever

sunrise aug 22JPG

Iwas outside at dawn this morning, as I’ve been most days this summer. Standing in the wet grass, watching the molten, majestic sun slide from behind the mountain into a rose-colored sky, two thoughts occurred to me at exactly the same time: Life is still hard. And it’s more beautiful than ever.

The hard things are easy to list. They’ve been running on an endless loop in my head through every sleepless night this week: An ongoing conversation with my younger son that keeps ending badly. The helplessness of not knowing how to make things better. Worries about the other son as he wraps up a summer job he’s loved and embarks on a new life chapter. A slightly frayed, unraveling edge in my marriage — and not knowing how to mend that, either. The piles of things around the house that I should have cleared away by now and the to-do list that doesn’t ever seem to get any smaller. The familiar, nagging sense that I’m spread too thin, letting too many people down, not doing enough or being enough or giving enough.

Wakefulness takes its own toll, as if exhaustion has peeled off a protective layer, leaving me a little more raw and vulnerable than usual. I am less resilient and resourceful; more prone to sudden, silly tears, frustration, anxiety. I do an interview over the phone, make a birthday dinner for my dad, hand-write a stack of letters, pay the bills, read a bound galley that needs a blurb, call to congratulate a friend who’s just finished writing her book, sort the laundry, sweep the floor. I try again with my son. Take my husband’s hand. Pick flowers for the table and bake scones from scratch. Take a deep breath, and then another. Take a run. Smile at a stranger on the street. These are all good things to do. And yet. My mind feels not quite all here. I’m tired. And it’s still hard.

And beautiful.


Mending the world within our reach — and a video to inspire suspect I’m not the only one feeling a little wary and vulnerable in my skin these days.  A week after the Boston bombings, as people across the nation paused yesterday afternoon to observe a moment of silence at 2:50, I stood alone in my own quiet kitchen, sad and somewhat at a loss for what to do next.

There is so much in my life to be grateful for. No one I know was injured last week.  All my loved ones are fine.  Nothing visible in my world has changed. And yet, I find myself blinking back tears at the slightest provocation or criticism or harsh word.  There is too much violence in the world.  Let us not add to it, not even with one more negative word or gesture.

The headlines in the newspaper are both an accounting and a measure of our collective sorrow: the suffering that spills across the pages in articles and images, the anger and confusion still searching for an outlet, the grief still so fresh and raw.  Looking at the photos of two brothers, one dead and one facing death or life imprisonment, I search in vain for some clue that would explain such calculated, senseless evil.  And then, because I am myself a mother of two boys, I can’t help but think: these boys are also someone’s sons.

At the same time, photos from the funerals remind us of all the other parents who are mourning.  The losses, and the ripples from those losses, are unfathomable. Yet in the midst of loss, there is extraordinary grace, too, and resilience. On TV, a composed young dancer’s face lights up as she tells Anderson Cooper how glad she is to be alive, even as she envisions her new life without her left foot.  She will dance again, she insists, leaning into her husband’s arms and gazing down at the bright pink bandage that wraps her stump.  And then she makes a promise: somehow, though she’s never been a runner herself, she intends to return to the Marathon next year – as a participant, even if it means she walks or crawls across the finish line.

There is more than one path toward healing, no one right way to grieve or to recover.  But after a week of monitoring the unfolding developments in Boston, after listening to this courageous young woman try to articulate why she is choosing not to look back in anger but to move forward with hope, I sense it’s time for a break from the relentless onslaught of news.  Time to find my own still center and embrace the texture of life as it is – not an easy task in the best of times, perhaps even more challenging today.

The sight of my welcoming house at the end of a long car ride Sunday night filled my heart to overflowing.  Hugging my husband and son after a weekend on the road, receiving a sweet text just now from a friend, bending down to the floor to snuggle my aging dog, reading a poem I love, watching the sun slip behind a cloud, just being – alive and aware and fully present in my own ordinary life – feels emotionally demanding, too.  It’s as if everything has become heightened, both the fragility of my own brief presence here, and the exquisite, complicated beauty of our interconnected human existence on this earth.

Maybe, for a time, we are meant to be this raw and tender.  Forced to acknowledge the dark shadow side of human nature and to feel the full brunt of that knowing, we have to face the truth:  People hurt each other.  Violence and suffering are intertwined, one giving rise to the other.  And somehow, it is up to each one of us to do better, to soften our hearts, to sing our songs even in the midst of sorrow, to take better care of ourselves and of one another.

I think of how many opportunities I have each day to be brave and vulnerable, to offer a hand, to make love visible – and how many of those opportunities I squander, because I’m too annoyed to be expansive, too scared to reach out, too distracted to notice, or too busy to bother.  And then I’m reminded of words I turn to again and again by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, words that guide me home when I stray away from the person I aspire to be:

Be brave…

“Anything you do from the soulful self will help lighten the burdens of the world. Anything. You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion. Be outrageous in forgiving. Be dramatic in reconciling. Mistakes? Back up and make them as right as you can, then move on. Be off the charts in kindness. In whatever you are called to, strive to be devoted to it in all aspects large and small. Fall short? Try again. Mastery is made in increments, not in leaps. Be brave, be fierce, be visionary. Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach. To strive to live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give to the world.”

 Inspiration. . .

I first met Carrie Carriello three years ago, when she attended a reading of The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  She told me she was thinking about writing a book herself, and asked if I would read a few of her essays.  Her humor and  courage were evident in every paragraph.  I couldn’t imagine how this busy young mother could possibly take care of five rambunctious children, including an autistic son, and find time to write a book, too.  And yet I also had a feeling nothing was going to stop her; she was that determined to tell her family’s story and to share her special little boy with the rest of us. Today, What Color is Monday? is published.

It’s my pleasure to share Carrie’s video with you, in which she recalls the moment she knew for certain her special son would find his way in the world, thanks to a stranger’s generosity – a beautiful example of the way one small act of kindness can transform a life. Listening to Carrie, I’m inspired to reach a little higher myself — to love more, to be better, to be braver, to be kinder.  “You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion.”

Click here to watch.



Full house, full heart

steve and the boysI’ve sometimes wondered if I’ll spend the rest of my life missing my sons as the little boys they used to be.

Even now, though it’s been years since I reminded anyone to look both ways, the sight of a mom crossing the street hand-in-hand with a little guy with sleep-tufted hair and rolled up jeans fills my eyes with sudden, unbidden tears.

Arriving at an elementary school to give a talk one morning not long ago, watching parents bending low to kiss their children good-bye, observing the sea of bobbing backpacks, the bright art on the walls, the exuberance of  six-year-olds beginning their day, I was so overcome with emotion that I had to slip back out to my car for a few minutes and compose myself. Still, standing up at the podium in that room full of young mothers, I wasn’t quite sure I could trust my voice.

“Do you know,” I wanted to say to them, “how quickly this will all be over?  Do you realize just how sweet and rich your lives are right now? How fleeting?”

Of course, this is what older people have been saying to younger ones since time began.  And no one wants to hear it.

Busy, distracted, wondering how to transport the kids from point A to point B and pick up some food for dinner and get the homework done without too much of a fuss, an over-stretched, over-tired parent isn’t worrying about the end of childhood so much as how to survive the hours between 3:00 and bedtime.  I know that.  I’ve been that mom, too.

But it’s been a while since we had two boys still living at home full time, and what I’m most aware of now is not how endlessly long those days could be, but how quickly those years flew by. Adjusting to my new empty-nest reality, after over two decades of 24/7 mothering, has been a slow, bittersweet process.

         At times my nostalgia for our family life as it used to be – for our own imperfect, cherished, irretrievable past – is overwhelming.  The life    my husband and children and I had together, cast now in the golden light of memory, seems unbearably precious; what lies ahead, darker and lonelier and less certain.

When I first wrote those words, just two years ago, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling differently.  Even as my days slowly filled with new joys and occupations, I felt as if I also lived in the shadow of that darker, lonelier future.  With both my sons grown and gone, I wondered if any as-yet-unwritten life chapter could ever feel quite as right, quite as challenging and fulfilling, as those years of intense, day-in-day-out togetherness.

It is such a raw and relentless business, motherhood.  There is the constant physical engagement, at once exhilarating and exhausting. But there is also the vehement, insistent emotion; the frightening, thrilling ferocity of our love for these souls we’ve delivered into the world.

How many times was I brought to my knees by the visceral intimacy of tears and blood and poop, fevers and sweats and strange skin rashes, sibling battles and wild nightmares and crazy, irrational fears? And then, within the same hour sometimes, I would be lifted right up again, exalted and turned inside out by the accidental, extravagant grace of wild laughter or a whoop of glee, a whispered confession, a cuddle, an imponderable question, a kiss delivered to an elbow or a knee (why there??), some random joke without a punch-line that made us all giggle anyway.  When all of that ended, when first one son and then the other had the audacity to grow up and leave the nest, I was sure our family life would never again be quite as good.

Last weekend, both our boys were home.  We still had about three feet of snow on the ground and not much on the agenda – a lot of March Madness basketball on the TV, a couple of family dinners, unplanned hours. I made chicken potpie from scratch.  Jack (a skilled body worker after three years of interning at a studio in Boston) offered to get me up on the massage table and work on my stiff muscles.  For an hour he patiently stretched and manipulated my arms, neck, and shoulders, with extraordinary sensitivity and attentiveness.

On Sunday morning we went to church and listened to Henry play the organ.  As the light poured in through the tall windows,  as the choir sang the Palm Sunday anthem he’d chosen and rehearsed with them, I was flooded with memories of our son as a little boy straining to reach the foot pedals, practicing hymns on our old upright piano in the living room.  The tears that sprang to my eyes then weren’t tears of longing for what was, but of gratitude for all that’s come to be.

The journey between dreaming and becoming, between childhood and adulthood, doesn’t end, of course, when the kids head off for school or leave home or embark on careers or marriages.  It is ongoing, full of twists and turns, detours and disappointments, surprises and sudden revelations.

Who knew that what seemed like a catastrophic loss for one son – freshman year of college missed, two broken vertebrae and constant, chronic pain – would inspire this strong-willed boy who once fantasized about being a tennis star to become a compassionate healer instead?  And how could we have ever imagined that the shy, dreamy child who seemed almost too frail for this world at times, would one day grow up to be a competent, self-assured music director, perfectly at ease performing in front of a congregation and coaching singers four times his age?

In the afternoon last Sunday, between basketball games and my marathon in the kitchen, Steve and the boys and I all put on our boots and took a walk, our favorite loop through the woods.  Gracie trotted ahead, glancing back every few steps as if she couldn’t quite believe her good fortune.  For a border collie, heaven is having your entire herd in the same place at the same time – ideally, out in the woods and sticking close together.

I knew how she felt.  I was happy, too.

In fact, as we tramped along the path it suddenly occurred to me, for the very first time, that I wouldn’t turn the clock back now even if I could.  Not for one hour, not for one day, or for one year or ten.  Not for anything.

It hit me with the power of epiphany:  this sudden, unexpected end to the nostalgic longing I’ve carried like a bruise upon my heart for so long that I’ve nearly forgotten what true ease in the here and now feels like.

Who we are, what we are, where we are at this moment is different from what was, absolutely.  But it is in no way less than.  And the surprising truth is, I wouldn’t trade our family’s beautiful, complicated, ever shifting and fleeting present for any simpler golden-hued yesterday.

Instead, I am pausing each day of this Easter week and giving thanks for what is, right now.  I am grateful for who we are in this moment: four still-growing human beings, each of us irrevocably, mysteriously, wonderfully connected.  Each of us finding our own unique way to be in the world, and at the same time, each of us gratefully returning to this hallowed place of our own creation:  this piece of earth, this house, this dinner table, this history, this tangled web of us-ness.  Yes, we are each still and always unfinished parts of some greater, unknowable whole.  And yes, we are still and always something else, too.  We are family.

BIG Magical Journey News (and some Mother’s Day inspiration. . .)

I imagine Cheryl Strayed has gotten used to the accolades by now.  But for ME a rave in PEOPLE magazine is, well, a big deal.  Was I pleased to find this link in my in-box this morning, under the heading “Memoirs We Can’t Put Down”?  That would be an understatement! 

Maria Shriver is a role model for many of us, and her Architects of Change website is a treasure trove of inspiration, support, and wisdom.  So it’s a huge honor for me to be listed now among her “guides,” and especially to be featured by her this week.  Thank you, Maria!  You can read my essay HERE.

Power of Moms is, quite simply, an amazing website.  Described as “a gathering place for deliberate mothers,” it’s part hang-out, part retreat, part educational resource — and an altogether very friendly, helpful place to be.  I had such a great time talking with founder April Perry that I nearly forgot we were  recording a podcast; it was more like talking with a lively, like-minded friend.  Relax, take a few minutes with a cup of tea, and listen in HERE.


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 are both looking forward to reuniting at a luncheon hosted by The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT, on Friday, April 19 at noon.  For the price of a book, you will get a catered lunch, a reading, and time to chat with the two of us too! Call the store at (860) 868-0525 for more info and to reserve your place.

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! 

                  Housekeeping . . .

MOTHER’S DAY isn’t far off.  Yesterday, I signed and personalized 24 (!) copies of The Gift of an Ordinary Day for readers who’d ordered them from my local bookstore, The Toadstool, here in Peterborough, NH.  I asked Willard, the owner, if he’d be willing to gift-wrap books as Mother’s Day gifts, and he said “Sure.”  That’s right.  Now, you can order personalized, signed copies of ANY of my books just by clicking HERE.   This will bring you to an order form at the Toadstool’s website.  Leave a note with your order, letting us know if you want your books personalized and/or gift-wrapped.  I’ll sign them, we’ll wrap them beautifully, and we’ll get them right off to you or to the special moms in your life.

I’ve loved hearing from so many of you!  Your letters never fail to make my day — they remind me all over again how lucky we all are, to be part of a community of readers, seekers, thinkers, nurturers.  If you feel inclined to write a bit MORE, however, each and every reader review on  Goodreads and on Amazon is hugely appreciated (by me!) and helpful.  (Doesn’t have to be long, just kind and, preferably, enthusiastic!)

Thanks too, my dear friends, for continuing to share my video with others, for inviting folks to “like” my  Magical Journey Facebook page, and for sharing my blog posts on your own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  There is no denying the power of word of mouth!






Love Your Fate

Some true stories.

On a tennis training trip to Florida last March, two months before his high school graduation, my son Jack felt something snap and spasm in his back. He’d played tennis through chronic pain for over a year, but this was different; the sudden jolt stopped him cold. He didn’t know in that moment that he’d just suffered two stress fractures in his L5 vertebrae, but he was pretty certain his final high school tennis season had just ended — before it had even begun. He knew, too, that his dream of being named captain of his team senior year would not come to pass. Later that same night, in pain but not yet diagnosed, he sat in a hotel room with some of his teammates. Drinks were poured and consumed. Jack and a friend put the empty liquor bottles into a knapsack and set out to carry them to a dumpster at a gas station up the road. On the way, they were intercepted by their coaches. By seven the next morning, Jack was on a plane home. One minute he had been president of his senior class, a star athlete with an early decision acceptance to his first-choice college. A day later, he was expelled from school, at home, and in bed with a broken back. His college acceptance was rescinded a few weeks after that.

My neighbor Debbie has managed the challenges of living with an ostomy for over twelve years, despite nearly constant blood loss and pain. When the oozing gets to be too severe, she undergoes a bowel cauterization, an uncomfortable procedure that has always been worth the result – a few months with less blood leaving her body, which means more energy and strength for her. In May, however, the cauterizing procedure that had worked well in the past had the opposite effect. Home from the hospital, Debbie bled continuously into her pouch for nearly a day. A friend and I drove her to the emergency room; halfway there, we realized she was losing consciousness and called an ambulance to meet us on the road. Debbie spent a couple of days in the ICU, stunned to realize just how close she had come to death’s door, just how fragile her condition really was. Back at home, she was weak, thin, exhausted – and still bleeding, uncertain whether her ravaged bowels and were healing or finally giving way altogether.

Up the road, just two miles from where we live, a young couple took over the farm where we have been CSA members for the past few years. The plan was for the elderly owner and his wife to slowly hand the farm over to Frank and Stacey, who have been working tirelessly from dawn till dark since early last spring, reclaiming and planting fields, building greenhouses, raising goats and pigs and chickens. We spent a day earlier this summer with our new neighbors at the farm, admiring the fruits of their labors – abundant vegetable gardens, happy animals, a lovely farm store well stocked with fresh, organic produce. A few weeks ago, when I stopped to buy kale from Stacey at the farmer’s market, I could tell she was upset. “We have to get rid of all the animals,” she explained, fighting back tears, “and as soon as we do, we have to leave the farm.” It turned out that the owner’s wife had decided she didn’t want animals being raised for meat on the property, and that was that. The deal was off.

“We’ve done the numbers every which way,” Stacey said sadly. “And we just can’t make a go of that property without the income from the animals.” Yesterday was Frank and Stacey’s final day at our local farmer’s market. They have found homes for all their animals, except for a few rabbits, which they are keeping. On Saturday the remainder of the garden’s bounty will go to the handful of CSA members and be offered for free at their roadside stand. Just as all the hard work of these last months is resulting in an abundant harvest at this beautiful old farm, the owner is meeting with real estate agents and developers, and Frank and Stacey are packing up to leave the place where they had hoped to sink their roots and stay forever.

On the early July day that Steve and I spent touring the fields and barns with Frank, he explained the origins of the new name he and Stacey had bestowed on the farm: “Amor Fati.” “It means ‘love your fate’ in Latin,” Frank said.

“We named the farm in memory of our best friend,” he continued, “who was planning to move here with us to farm this land. His motto was ‘amor fati.’ And that’s the way he lived his life, open to the world and loving his fate. He was killed in a car crash just before we moved to New Hampshire. But he would be here, farming right alongside us if he could. And so it seemed right that our farm, and our work here, should honor his memory and his great love of life.”

Amor fati. I have carried this resonant Latin phrase in my heart all summer. Love your fate. What a challenge that is, when what fate has to offer is not your dream come true but rather broken bones, stupid mistakes, dashed hopes, eviction notices, loss and pain and heartache. And yet, surely we are shaped as much by dashed hopes as by those that come to pass. We are strengthened not by the easy stuff, but by what brings us to our knees. And we realize our full potential as human beings as much by losing at the game of life as by winning.

To love your fate is to believe that the way things are right now is the way they are supposed to be – even if nothing is quite the way we wanted or expected. We can either go down swinging, or we can die to the way things were and begin instead to live into them as they are.

Jack has spent the summer in Boston, packing cards and rolling posters to earn money, and doing intensive stretching and physical therapy to heal his back. He has had to give up all the activities he loves and remain pretty much immobile, in the hope that given absolute rest, his bones will begin to knit back together. The most recent scan, a few weeks ago, showed just the slightest bit of new growth, a dim shadow of healing. Enough progress for his doctor to say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, and stay quiet for another six months, and then we’ll see.”

Last night, just as I was falling asleep, Jack called, wanting to talk about re-applying to college for next year. “I think getting thrown out of school and then having college taken away was probably for the best,” he said. “And having this broken back, the most horrible thing that’s ever happened in my whole life, has also made me a stronger, better person.”

I listened, phone to my ear in the dark bedroom, as my son acknowledged that the worst thing that had ever happened to him – a severe, possibly incurable back injury – had led him to the best thing that’s ever happened to him: intense daily stretching sessions with an extraordinary healer and mentor; work that is changing the way he feels in his body and the way he confronts the rest of his life. “I’ve had to change everything about the way I live,” Jack went on. “I’ve gone from being someone who lived totally for sports and for pleasure, to someone who realizes that there are other ways to live and be happy and healthy, and that’s huge.”

I agreed that it is, indeed, huge. “And so I think the fall is going to be mostly about applying to college again,” Jack said. “But I think I’m a better candidate now than I was a year ago. I’ve learned a lot. I feel as if I actually have something to offer.” Amor fati.

As I write these words, Debbie is outside, clipping faded stalks of coneflower and rudbeckia from my tangled August garden. “I worked hard for this little life of mine,” she said the other day, as she sipped the high-protein breakfast smoothie I make her each morning. “To be able to spend time in your garden, go to the pond with the dogs, and take a swim. It’s all I want. And every single day that I’m here, able to do what I love, I just look up and say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’.” Amor fati.

Stacey smiled yesterday when I told her how grateful we’ve been for their beautiful food all summer. “We want to come back in the spring,” she said, as she weighed my potatoes and filled a bag with arugula. “Everyone has been so kind and supportive to us. All the other farmers have been great. And this place has come to feel like home, where we belong.” For now, Frank and Stacey will move in with her aunt in Massachusetts; she will return to her old job, working with autistic children, while Frank begins to search for another farm, a small piece of land they can buy outright, where they can start all over again from scratch, dreaming and planting and living close to the earth. Amor fati.

The pain of life isn’t ever going to disappear. But perhaps it is in our efforts to open our hearts, to accept and work with what life hands us, that we grow our souls. Day by day, as we struggle to carry on in the face of grief and disappointment, we begin to see that even a great setback may contain a gift: the opportunity to discover, through practice, what lies behind sorrow. “How can we reconcile this feast of losses?” asks poet Stanley Kunitz.

Maybe the answer is this simple, this beautiful, this all-encompassing: Amor fati.

Never a Dull Moment

Unfortunately, there is still snow on the ground, even though it’s April. Fortunately, a robin convention is underway in my front yard and there are crocuses blooming alongside the stone wall.

Unfortunately, I thought I’d been left off the guest list to a dear friend’s surprise birthday party. Fortunately, it turned out that the hostess had an old email address and was wondering why she hadn’t heard from me — just as I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from her.

Unfortunately, I’d already made plans for that evening but, fortunately, I was able to stop by the party long enough to be part of the surprise, have a glass of champagne, and wish my friend a happy 50th.

Unfortunately, my son Jack and I had a horrible conversation on Friday that kept me awake, tossing and turning all night. Fortunately, he called the next day to set things right, and we both felt much, much better.

Unfortunately, a good friend is facing a frightening biopsy this week. Fortunately, he sat at our dinner table on Saturday night and was reminded how much love and support surround him as he takes the first step on this journey into the unknown.

Unfortunately, none of my son Henry’s many applications have resulted in a summer internship or job offer. Fortunately, he decided yesterday to take a leap and attend a meditation retreat for pianists — a big step outside the box that may take him right where he needs to go.

Unfortunately, the huge brush pile my husband and I were burning yesterday sent a wild spark into the field. Fortunately, friends and neighbors came quickly to our aid and together we were able to stamp out the fire before damage was done.

Unfortunately, I was so sore and exhausted after a long day of hauling brush and tending raging fires that I could barely move my tired body off the couch last night. Fortunately, Steve made his own dinner and emptied the dishwasher and said, “Let’s go to bed early.”

Friends keep asking me: “What is it like, coming back to the ‘real’ world, after a whole month away?” So far, I have no good answer to the question. Life is what it is, what it’s always been. I am who I am, the very same person I was before I had the lovely opportunity to practice yoga and meditation for eight hours a day. And yet, there is something going on here that feels a little bit different.

I think of a book that our family adored when Henry and Jack were small, a book by Remy Charlip called Fortunately, that we read aloud over and over again. “Fortunately,” it begins, “Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.”

The charm and appeal of this wonderful picture book is the speed with which Ned’s luck turns from good to bad to good again. He’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down — until, of course, we realize right along with him that there’s no point at all in judging any of the crazy things that happen to him as either “good” or “bad.” They just are, and, at the end of the day, at the end of the book, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And that, I think, is one thing I learned in my time away. I can continue to go through life keeping a tally sheet of the “good” stuff and the “bad” stuff, or I can let go of that kind of judging and comparing all together. As I practice simply being present, living in the moment that is right now, I come into a closer relationship with an inner self that is not at the mercy of every thought or fear or perception that passes through my busy mind, but that somehow stands apart, watching, abiding, and holding faith that everything will turn out fine in the end.

My “witness consciousness” is still a toddler, which is to say that this non-judging, non-reacting self is not terribly reliable yet. (That awful phone conversation did send me into a tailspin of worry and frustration, after all.)

Yet, I am growing fond of this quiet, less reactive part of me. I want to know her better, to encourage her presence. Sitting on my yoga mat, allowing my own breath to be a doorway into the moment, I realize how good it feels to place my trust in the rightness of things as they are. “The seed of suffering in you may be strong,” writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”

What a simple, radical idea: allowing myself to be happy. I don’t have to put happiness off, until some future day when everything is just as I want it to be. In fact, I can be happy right now, just by embracing what is — the whole messy, imperfect ball of wax. Instead of being buffetted about by a swirl of emotions, self-doubts, or fears, I can watch life unfold with an appreciative eye and a grateful heart.

The other day I had tea with my friend Pam. It was the first of April, and we were watching it snow — hard. “Never a dull moment,” she said, smiling. So true. So obvious. So profound. As soon as I stop judging, complaining, comparing then I am free to become a full participant in the great swirl of energy that is life itself, with all its close calls and wacky surprises and unexpected twists and turns. Unfortunately, things never really go as planned. Fortunately, they have a way of working themselves out. Never a dull moment. I wouldn’t have it any other way.