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?

Parents Day

You’d think I would be used to it by now, the simple fact that my children have grown up.  Yet time after time the bittersweet truth hits me again, in some new and unexpected way.  A memory surfaces, vivid and fresh as this morning’s sunrise–Henry at twelve, wearing a too-big Hawaiin shirt and a pair of cool sunglasses, playing Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” on the piano; or Jack, fourteen and all intensity and focus, as he reaches down to turn up his amp for a guitar solo on “Autumn Leaves.”  And in a flash my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells up, as I realize how far we’ve already traveled from those moments. Life rushes forward. Except for those rare and precious circumstances when it affords us, instead, the poignant pleasure of circling back — back to a place we’ve been before, a place that’s stayed the same even while we ourselves have changed and grown and moved on.

Nine years ago Saturday, Steve and Jack and I drove into the woods of western Maine for our first Parents Day at Camp Encore/Coda.  We took our seats in the dimness of an old post-and-beam barn on the shores of a quiet pond, and watched our son Henry play jazz keyboards for the first time in his life.  The song was Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”  He took a little solo, glanced out to where we sat in the audience, and flashed us a grin.

Music camp had been my idea, not his. Three weeks earlier, we’d delivered our boy into the hands of a couple of friendly college students, who promised him a fine time in Starfish cabin.  And then we hugged him good-bye and left him there, shy and frightened, with a nervous stomach ache and a black trunk full of carefully labeled shorts and tee-shirts, pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for letters home, bug spray and sweatshirts and music books.  As we pulled out onto the dirt road beyond the parking lot, I realized that my own stomach felt kind of queasy.  And I wondered if, in my desire to expand our son’s world and build his confidence, I’d perhaps pushed a little too hard and a little too soon.  It wasn’t until we returned and saw him standing on the corner of the Old Music Hall stage, holding his own in a jazz band comprised of a bunch of other eleven-year-old kids, a look of pure joy on his face, that I knew for sure:  painful as it had been to insist that our boy leave home for the first time in his life, the journey now belonged to him.

Jump forward nine years.  It is Saturday, and I am in the audience at Parent’s Day again.  My son is a senior counselor, with piano students of his own to teach, a jazz workshop to lead, concerts to perform and camp musicals to play.  The memories come rushing back as I sit in the old barn — all the years we have returned to this camp that both of our sons came, in their own turn, to love.  All the times we’ve gone through the very same ritual, arriving at the gate early on a mid-summer morning, parking the car in a freshly mown field,  following the signs into camp, eyes peeled for one of our boys.  How strange, and perfectly wonderful it always was, to sit in a shed in the deep woods of Maine, listening to children and teenagers and adults all making music together.  A handful of young string musicians performing the Brandenburg concertos with exquisite nuance.  A group of kids in shorts and t-shirts, intently focused on their conductor as they sing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”  in pure six-part harmony. A big band comprised of musicians whose average age is fourteen, swinging through intricate jazz arrangements with the panache and creativity of pros.

It’s been four years since Henry’s last sumer here, when he spent seven weeks working his tail off as a CIT.  Three years since Jack played lead guitar in the Zappa Rock Band. Camp vanished all too quickly in life’s rearview mirror, another part of childhood that had been lived and loved and left behind.  And so, part of what gives rise to so much emotion on this particular morning is my own sharp awareness of time passing. It is not exactly jealousy I feel, as I watch a new generation of parents greeting their children, exclaiming over summer tans, growth spurts, and shaggy hair.  I had my turn.  And yet I am overcome, as I walk up the familiar path and hear the sound of a solitary violin being tuned in a practice cabin, both with gratitude for this unexpected homecoming and, at the same time, with a profound, heart-breaking sense of how much is already over.

My challenge now — as it seems to be every day this summer — is to release my hold on what was, so that I can be grateful and at peace with what is.  How well I remember the acute, visceral joy of these reunions.  But there is a different joy awaiting me here now, if I can only allow myself to feel it.  Not the joy of bringing a much-missed child home at the end of the weekend, but rather the joy of being a mother who has done her job, and is now being offered an opportunity to catch a glimpse of her grown-up son doing his.

 

 

Homecomings

 

 I’ve had the idea for a while now that these last few years have been all about change, and that my task has been to learn how to deal with it, how to make my peace with the many endings and beginnings that seem to be part and parcel of mid-life.    It’s been years since we moved away from the neighborhood where Henry and Jack grew up. And although we’ve returned for visits with old friends and neighbors, our roots are elsewhere these days. Our boys, eleven and fourteen when they last spent a night in our old house, are now seventeen and twenty, pretty much full-grown.   And our current life in New Hampshire (one son halfway through college, the other finishing high school)  bears no resemblance to the one we left behind (two little boys in the backyard, playing catch until dark).

The image I’ve had in my mind–of doors closing for good on the past and new ones opening before us–seemed practical and realistic.  Settled now, with a bit of history in our not-so-new house, I’ve come to accept the fact that all children grow up eventually and, in the process, families do change, and sometimes they even move away from cherished places.  Life chapters end. Pages turn.  We acknowledge endings, create new beginnings, yearning all the while for permanence and  security.

And year by year, as my own family has shaped new rituals and memories in a new place, I’ve struggled to make my fragile peace with Thomas Wolfe’s famous truism, “you can’t go home again.”  (Well, I keep telling myself, you can’t, not in any literal sense. The day you sign those closing papers, the locks get changed and what was once yours no longer is.)

And yet, lately I’ve experienced one homecoming after another, homecomings at once unexpected, wonderful, and profound. In fact, I am typing these words while sitting on the porch of our former next-door neighbor’s house, gazing across the driveway at our own old green house, solid and quiet and still on this hot summer afternoon.  Plunked back into our old neighborhood –and, in some ways, right back into our old life — I can’t help but think about homecomings in a more spiritual sense, homecomings that keep reminding me that everything is connected after all, and that although life is always changing, beginnings and endings might be little more than illusions, constructs of our limited human minds that fail to take into account the bigger mystery.

A few months ago, Jack was invited to participate in a four-days-a-week training program in Boston this summer –long hours, hard work, lots to learn.  “If you really want to do this,” I told him at the time, “I’m sure we can figure out a way to make it work.”  He gave it some thought, and said yes.  And I started looking into summer sublets on Craig’s List and putting out feelers to every friend within fifteen miles of the city.  A few promising leads fizzled.  And then our former next-door neighbors and best friends from across the driveway offered us their house.  They would be in South Africa and could use a house sitter; we were welcome to move in for the month they would be gone.

And so it was that last Sunday night, Jack and I let ourselves in to the house where he spent some of the happiest hours of his childhood playing with his two best buddies, Nick and Will.

“This feels pretty weird,” we said in unison, as we flicked on lights and called the cat’s name.  Our friends were halfway across the world by the time we showed up, and neither of us quite knew what to do in their house without them in it, too.  I put some food in the fridge, opened the windows, unpacked my bag, and then tossed and turned all night, feeling like a trespasser in my best friend’s bedroom.

Jack, veteran of countless sleep overs here and epic games of hide and seek, knows every nook and cranny of this house, but in the morning he told me that he’d had trouble settling down himself.  He was at a bit of a loss,  missing his friend and not quite comfortable sprawled out in Nick’s bed instead of in his usual spot, in a sleeping bag on the floor.

As it turns out, our old house is empty this summer as well, the owners having spent the last year abroad.  And so it’s been all too easy to imagine that, any minute now, we’ll just saunter across the driveway and be at “home” again.  From the outside, everything looks exactly as it did when we lived there. Which means I can fool myself into thinking that, inside, my dishes are stacked in the cupboards as always, our family photos are still on the walls, Steve is working away in his upstairs office, Henry’s picking out tunes on the piano in the living room.

All during our first day here, I had to remind myself: those weeds in the garden are not mine to pull, the blueberries ripening by the garage, not ours to pick, even if no one else is around to harvest them.  Jack has felt the tug in a different way.  The other night, looking over at our old house as dusk fell, he mused, “If I ever get rich enough to build my own house, I think I’ll make it exactly like this one.  And then it would always feel like I was back home again.”

Meanwhile, we are making ourselves at home again, right next door.  After a few days in Carol’s kitchen, I know where the pot holders are and how to use her coffee maker.  The New York Times is on the front lawn by the time I take Jack to his train at seven.  I’ve gone back to my old yoga studio for class each morning, taken long walks with old friends, visited the local farmer’s markets (better than ever), and bought Jack a pizza at Joe’s (exactly the same).

It’s amazing how comfortable we’ve come to feel, how  at home we are here in our old world, even after all this time away. It seemed perfectly natural  for Jack’s pal Will, who grew up in the house behind ours, to saunter through the front door last night and say “hi.”  Within five minutes those two six-foot-tall guys were down on the floor, practicing a wrestling hold, sweaty and laughing, as if they were both eleven again.

Two days ago, I took a stroll through our old backyard and recalled the planting of every bush and perennial and tree. Remembering all the hours of hard work Steve and I put in over the course of our thirteen years here, trying to create our own version of paradise, I allowed myself a weepy moment at the sight of the weed-choked gardens and untended beds, as overgrown and rampant with vines as  Sleeping Beauty’s entangled castle. But then, all of a sudden, something in me lightened, and I think I let that particular sadness go for good.  It occurred to me that this old, odd house that was our home for so long — built as a barn in 1850, gutted and turned into a house for humans in 1923 — has withstood both love and neglect, family life and family deaths, homecomings and goings, for over a century and a half. A hundred years from now, it will stand there still, holding its own silent counsel.  Like all those who came before us, and all those who will come after, we were just a few mortals passing through.  No big deal in the grand scheme of things.

And yet, the seeds we sowed during our own brief time here were not just for the vegetables and flowers that brought us so much passing pleasure, but also seeds of love and friendship that continue to bear fruit in our lives today, despite the passage of time and the challenges of distance. The day we moved away six years ago — a day that I saw at the time as a wrenching finale to our sons’ childhoods and the life we’d known — was in fact no such thing.  It was just a day.  Life transforming itself the way it does:  this happens, and then that happens.  In Buddhism it is said that all causes and conditions are related; that the world exists in a state of interdependence.  Because one thing arises, another arises; because of this, that.

And so it occurs to me now that I was mistaken to ever think of life as a simple series of endings and beginnings.  How self-defeating, to try so hard to grab hold of those things I wanted to keep intact, with the idea that permanence just might be possible. Sitting here by myself, looking at the empty shell of a house that was once stuffed full of us — but that is now the center of another family’s universe — I think I finally get it: home really is the place where I am right now, if I choose to make it so. And if I’m awake, and open, and loving what is, then I am always at home, no matter what roof is above my head or what return address I stamp in the upper corner of an envelope.

 

Addendum:  Last week, I wrote about a phone call I received seven years ago from my former sister-in-law, asking me to read her dying friend’s manuscript.  Beverly’s husband sent that link on to Jennie — and after reading my post, she picked up the phone and called me again.  This time, thanks to the imminent publication of The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, we connected right away and heart-to-heart, like the dear friends we were thirty years ago.  Jennie works in a book store now, and within minutes we’d hatched a plan — for me to visit in the fall,  do a reading at the store, have dinner, and spend the night with her family.  It was as if yet another handful of karmic seeds planted in the distant past were suddenly blossoming in this garden of the present moment.  Phone pressed to my ear, listening to Jennie’s familiar voice after all this time, hearing such love and kindness in her words —  that was quite a homecoming, too.