making room

A few weeks ago I phoned my son Jack in Asheville. “How would you feel about me taking over your bedroom at home and turning it into a writing space?” I asked.

I’d hesitated for weeks before raising this idea. But Jack didn’t hesitate in his response. “Oh, that’s fine,” he said, “you can do whatever you want with my room.”

Although we have a tiny office on the first floor of our house, I’ve never written a word in it. The desktop computer is my husband’s and his in-box sits beside it, overflowing with not-urgent papers and clippings and instruction manuals. The window above the desk looks out to the driveway and whatever vehicles happen to be parked there. The counter is a repository for checkbooks and bills to be paid, stamps and envelopes. And the chair, just the right height for Steve, is not very inviting to me. The office is a perfectly good place to write a check or Google driving directions, but it’s not a space my muse has ever chosen to visit.

Most of the words I’ve produced over the last ten years in this house have come from a stool at the kitchen table, where I look out to a view of fields and mountains and sky. I’ve spent countless hours perched there, staring out the windows above the sink while trying to pull my thoughts together. As a mother, as a wife, as a cook and homemaker, and also as a writer, I’ve always been drawn to this room, my own home base, whether I’m chopping something, stirring something, washing something, or writing something. Soups and emails, jars of jam and blog posts, thank you notes and books, all have come from my kitchen. More often than not, several of these things are coming together at once, which means that the written work can easily be shifted to the bottom of my priorities list. No one actually cares if I write or not, but dinner does have to appear on that table every night.

And yet, as summer turned to fall this year, I found myself longing for some other kind of place, a place not in the middle of the action but away from it. A place in which some new work might begin to take shape, privately and quietly. A place where there is nothing that needs to be chopped or watered or cleaned or stirred, where books of memoir and poetry would be easily at hand, and where my laptop and notes and papers don’t have to be put away at the end of the day so that placemats and napkins and silverware can be laid out in their place. [continue…]

no sides

The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall — the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.    ~ E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

I’ve been listening to the crickets’ warnings all afternoon, trying to accept the truth: summertime cannot last forever.  Much as I would love a hundred more days just like this one, there’s no denying that change is in the air. From my “summer office”  — an old blue chair on the screened porch — I have a view of mountains, garden, and sky.  It’s as serene a vista as any human being could hope to call home.  There is not another person in sight and I’ve allowed my computer screen to darken into sleep mode on the table in front of me. And yet distractions are plentiful.

Bright, busy monarchs float from one purple verbena spire to another, and every few minutes I step outside to count them.  Six at once today, more than I’ve ever seen here at one time.  A pair of bluebirds splash in the birdbath while woodpeckers and jays come and go from the feeder. A breeze rustles through the leaves, clouds slide by, bees hum, the sun slips behind the trees.  As the day turns and the shadows lengthen, the cricket song intensifies, as if more and more insect musicians are finding their way into the field, tuning up their instruments, and joining the symphony.  It’s hard to get much writing done.

Every year, my family teases me for mourning the end of summer even before the 4th of July fireworks are over.  I always want more – more dawn hikes up the mountain, more strawberries and blueberries and peaches to pick, more arugula and basil to cut from the garden, more swims in the pond, more dinners on the porch, more bouquets of cosmos and zinnias, more fires on the hilltop, more s’mores eaten in the dark, more nights of deep sleep with all the windows open. [continue…]

Change

GraceI’ve been paying close attention to the weather lately.  Over the last few days, frost has claimed the last of the nasturtiums outside the kitchen door.  The maple tree, as of yesterday, is bare, save for two golden leaves stubbornly clinging.

“The leaves fell so much earlier than usual this year,” I’ve been saying to my husband, as if we’ve been deprived of something; an extra week of gazing at them perhaps.  “It’s gotten colder sooner.”  He doesn’t believe me, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

And then it occurs to me:  I have a record.

It was just a year ago that two young filmmakers from Boston drove up to our house in New Hampshire to shoot the book trailer for Magical Journey.  I was watching the weather pretty closely that week, too, worried it would be freezing by the time we finally had a shot list together and that late October would prove too stark and wintry to allow for the kind of carefree outdoor moments I’d been envisioning.

I haven’t watched the video myself for a year, not since the day I okayed the final cut and sent it off to my publisher to post on YouTube, with fingers crossed that it might inspire a few book sales.  Perhaps some movie stars get used to seeing themselves on film or hearing the sound of their own recorded voices, but I doubt I ever will.  It’s easier not to look. [continue…]

Oprah doesn’t want me anymore

I didn’t think it would hurt, to be rejected by a magazine. But, at age 54, I guess I should have learned that it takes a while to recover from unrequited love.

Apparently, according to the editors at O, I should also have my life figured out by now. I should know exactly who I am and what my work is here on this earth. Those thorny questions about meaning and destiny? “By the time you’re 40 or 42,” said Oprah in last Sunday’s New York Times, “you should have kind of figured that out already.”

Oprah is not happy about the fact that the average age of her reader is 49. Times are tough at the magazine, which has seen a decline in readers and advertisers since her talk show ended eighteen months ago. And it seems I am part of the problem, one of those aging hangers-on who still want to read articles with substance and depth about women’s health, finances, spirituality and personal fulfillment. Enough already!

At 58, Oprah is looking around at the rest of us (late) middle-aged women, the ones who came of age seeking and searching right along with her, and wishing we would quietly go away. She wants, she says, to attract women in “their 30s or perhaps 20s, to be able to reach people when they are looking to fulfill their destiny.”

So, I’ve let my mom know she doesn’t need to renew my Oprah subscription for Christmas this year. I’ve been faithful, a devoted fan of the magazine since its very first issue. (In fact, I wrote a few articles and essays for O in the early years, and have never missed an issue since.) But Oprah’s not one for sentiment, and now she wants to make sure we all get the message: it’s not really a relationship. “Ultimately,” she told the Times, “you have to make money, because you are a business.”

I get that. But still, in an unexpected way, it was painful to learn that my age makes me not only invisible but undesirable. And I’m certainly not going to moon around where I’m no longer wanted or appreciated for who I am: a woman who is still unfinished, still growing and changing, still asking big questions, still seeking and searching and reading.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. My friends and I may not look like a sexy demographic to the powers that be at O, but I think we are quite an interesting bunch. As I consider the women I know, I see a remarkable span of challenges and possibilities, from divorce, illness, and financial crises to new careers, revived passions, and ambitious creative endeavors. From thrilling new romantic relationships to adult children in need of support and elderly parents in need of care. From a new ability to say “no” to unwanted demands to renewed commitments to community service, friendships, and family.

My female friends in their forties and fifties are running companies, writing books, going on pilgrimages, passing the bar exam, recovering from a husband’s sudden death, taking up the cello, selling the family home, taking painting lessons, dealing with chronic illness, volunteering in a community garden, running marathons, taking religious vows. We are also making dinner, experimenting with new wrinkle creams, walking the dog, doing the laundry, going to yoga class, buying groceries and winter coats, reading books.

And what we all have in common is that the changes of midlife have invited or compelled each and every one of us to reinvent ourselves, to ask those “Who am I?” and “What now?” questions all over again, with just as much urgency and wonder as we brought to them in our twenties and thirties.

The difference is that we know now, in a way we couldn’t have possibly understood then, that time isn’t infinite. We’ve watched friends die, seen neatly ordered lives shattered by loss, close-knit families come unraveled, careers upended in a day. Knowing that my own steps are numbered, that whole chapters of my life have ended, that I’ve already lived more days than I have left ahead of me, I sometimes feel as if everything is up for re-examination, as if all my choices matter more. And yet, I still yearn to find my own true path and walk it –if anything, even more thoughtfully and deliberately than before.

Which makes me think maybe Oprah’s right after all. “You’re never going to run out of people who are looking for a more joyful life,” she says. And that is true. But I’ve also learned that life is complex, joy is fleeting, and there are no easy solutions. “Living my best life” these days is as much about being as doing, more about acceptance than pursuit, more about expressing gratitude for what is than about grasping for more. So perhaps I also need to acknowledge that the inspiration I’m looking for now probably isn’t going to be found in the pages of a slick women’s magazine fat with ad pages and geared to thirty-year olds. Maybe, Oprah, I’ve outgrown you, too.

 

New Year’s Resolution

New Year’s Eve is always a tough negotiation in our house. I love to be with our kids, surrounded by family and the friends we’ve known all their lives; Steve likes a contemplative evening, preferably at home.  For years, we managed both.  A walk across the driveway, and we were at our best friends’ annual New Year’s party,  where a pot of Hoppin’ John and cornbread  was served at nine and adults and children mingled happily together to ring in the New Year.  My husband, who reminds me every December that he doesn’t like parties, could slip home to bed whenever he wanted to while the rest of us lingered on, dancing to old Beatles tunes and singing Auld Lang Syne as the ball dropped on TV.

One year, Henry and I closed down the party, dancing with our next door neighbor Wendell till 1:30 in the morning.  Wendell was the dad every kid in the neighborhood adored;  at his son’s Batman-themed birthday party, Wendell suddenly appeared on the roof of the house, in full costume, dramatically traversing the peak.  He coached every team, played keyboards in a rock n’ roll band, could build anything and did, including a hot tub in the backyard, a rec room in the barn, a deck for sleeping out under the stars.  It was Wendell who once dressed up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and then put in a dramatic appearance under the pine tree in our back yard, jingling bells as the snow fell silently around him and prompting an awestruck five-year-old Jack to exclaim, voice shaking with excitement, “We better get to bed!”

Wendell has been dead almost two years now.  And although much remains the same in our old neighborhood, that magical universe in which back doors were never locked and my own two sons grew up surrounded by playmates, much else has changed in the six years since we left, transformed by the realities of divorce, children growing up and going off to college, people (us!) moving away and new ones moving in, and the inexorable passage of time.  The death of my beloved friend Diane in October was yet one more devastating step away from what was into a new present that doesn’t yet feel familiar.

A part of me yearned, last week, to accept our dear old across-the-driveway neighbors’ invitation to come “home” for a quiet New Year’s Eve dinner, to be back in the fold with friends who share our history and who have been with us on every step of our parenting journey.

Yet, in a way, trying to go back there this year felt almost as difficult as trying to create something different here.  The kids aren’t kids anymore.  The losses are still fresh and raw.  Steve wanted to stay home.  And the trip is an hour and a half each way in the car, instead of a stroll from one back yard to the next.  I struggled with all of this for a few days.  And then it began to dawn on me that grasping wasn’t the answer, that it never is.  Perhaps the lesson of this  New Year’s Eve was actually about letting go of all that is familiar, and to allow, instead, a space for something small and tender and new to begin to take root.

And so we agreed to stay put, to make a simple dinner, light some candles, and let the rest just evolve. Jack ate a quick meal, packed an overnight bag, took the car, and headed to a party at a friend’s house.  A couple of our friends from here arrived, grateful to have a place to go and a table to sit at.  We put Stan Getz on the stereo, poured champagne, and savored an aromatic, saffron-laced fish soup.  There was chocolate fondue in front of the fireplace for dessert, Henry at the piano, even a short story read out loud.  As midnight approached, I wondered if anyone else was feeling the need to claim an intention for the new year.

There were six of us gathered in the living room, voices growing softer as the fire was dying down. We took our turns, made our predictable pledges for more reading in the months to come, more exercise, less procrastination, more travel.  Our friend Nancy is dating a minister, a man who knows how to infuse a moment with meaning.

When it was Gil’s turn to speak, he took a deep, all-eyes-on-the-pulpit kind of breath.  His eyes twinkled.  He smiled, and said:  “I was at a retreat a few weeks ago, and the leader said something that has stayed in my mind:  God doesn’t lead us into the familiar.”

The words immediately resonated with me, too.  I’ve been led this year into so many unfamiliar places:  my friend’s death, a charged conversation with a loved one, a podium with a microphone in front of 200 women, a guest bedroom in a stranger’s house on the other side of the country, the first tentative steps into intense new friendships, the perilous emotional territories of funerals and weddings, worries over the choices of grown children and soul-shaking disagreements about how to parent sons who have become adults.

Not one of these were places that I sought, but every one, no matter how painful or fulfilling or exhilarating,  was also an invitation to  grow and learn — if only I could open my heart to the lesson being offered. What I’m thinking about today, on this first day of 2011, is that perhaps the best New Year’s resolution I could make is to begin at long last to welcome change rather than fear it.  To accept new challenges as opportunities to become more fully myself, and to ease my white-knuckle grip on what feels safe and familiar.

The truth is, I’ve spent way too much time and energy in my life trying to stay in the comfort zone.  (Why else, I wonder now, did I go through four years of college without ever setting foot in a science lab or a math class, without ever donning a pair of running shoes, or leading a committee, or auditioning for a play?)  Looking back, I have to admit that so many of the choices I’ve made along the way have been the safe bets.  I don’t go where I need to go so much as where I think I can succeed, where I won’t make a fool of myself, where I won’t be found out to be the awkward, non-athletic, slow-on-the-uptake person that — deep inside — I still believe myself to be.

So what would it be like, I wonder, at the ripe old age of fifty-two to finally embrace change as a necessary, even exhilarating, opportunity for growth?  To head boldly forth into the places that scare me, rather than clinging to the safety of what I already know?

This morning, my alarm went off at 5:45.  The night sky was dark, save for the slenderest crescent moon suspended over the mountains.  I slipped out of bed, pulled on my wool socks and long underwear, grabbed Jack’s backpacking headlamp, and headed out the door.  There were six of us who met in the parking lot at the foot of Temple Mountain before dawn, willing to get up after less than five hours of sleep, strap on snowshoes, and hike uphill for 45 minutes in return for watching the first sunrise of 2011 from a mountain top.  The confluence of fading moon,  rising red ball of sun, and morning mist was nothing less than magnificent.  The most extraordinary light, the most perfect silence.  The snow pristine beneath our feet,  the glorious brightening sky above.  Yes, that was worth getting out of bed for, worth the blister on my heel, worth the climb to the top. How patiently the world waits for us, I thought, standing there, catching my breath.  Waits for us to wake up and pay attention to the beauty that is right before our eyes, if only we pause long enough to see.  We are not led to the familiar.  I think I’m finally ready to accept the truth of that, perhaps even to head out into some unknown territory of my own accord.  This year, I will opt for courage over comfort, new trails rather than my old, well-traveled paths.  I will climb some more mountains, see some more sunrises, go where I have never gone before.

What is your New Year’s resolution?