mending the world

My mom, who is eighty, gets up in the dark every morning. She likes to sit near the window in her living room, mug of tea in hand, and watch the sun come up across the pond.   “I don’t know how many sunrises I have left,” she said to me recently. “And I don’t want to miss a single one.”

I may be twenty-two years younger than she is, but I feel exactly the same way. Over here on my side of town I’m up, too, watching the day begin. Sometimes my mom sends me a photo of her sunrise, and I respond with a photo of mine. You might think that after ten years of living in this house with its southeasterly view of mountains and sunrises, I’d take the dawn for granted. In fact, the opposite is true. What my husband and I have learned from rising early enough to observe the beginnings of hundreds of days here is that no two sunrises are alike. Of course I could sleep through the quiet drama, or lose myself in the morning headlines or my Facebook news feed, or go about my business of getting breakfast ready and coffee made. The day arrives, after all, whether I’m bearing witness to it or not.

But still, morning after morning, I stand in the kitchen or, often enough out in the yard in my slippers, and take note of the changing light. It’s only a moment or two, a moment carved out of time and devoted simply to pausing and being and seeing. And every morning, almost without fail, my own heart lifts with the sun – for so begins another day on the planet, another day of being here, another day of striving to do a better job of being human than I did yesterday, another shot at more gracefully executing this precious, fleeting, endlessly surprising challenge of being alive.

An early riser, an optimist by nature, a lover of mornings, I’m always eager to launch myself into the day. And it doesn’t take much to make me happy: A cup of strong coffee laced with cream or a handful of frozen blueberries from my summer-stash in the freezer, a silly joke shared with my husband, a good-morning text from a far-away friend, the hairy woodpecker hanging upside-down at the feeder, busily extracting his morning ration of sunflower seeds, a sky fluid with traveling clouds executing their own sublime choreography, or a soft grey mantle of mist draped across the nearby hills. Looking around at the life I’m privileged to live, I see much to be grateful for.

Yet I’m also conscious these days, in a way I never have been before, that simple gratitude for all that’s good in the world just isn’t enough anymore. At least, it’s not enough for me. [continue…]

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.



Carrying on

It was little more than a fleeting inconvenience here, the mighty storm that stole the homes and lives and livelihoods of so many others. Standing in my kitchen on Monday afternoon, the phone pressed to my ear, I watched as the wind lifted our storage shed up and away, and lodged it amidst some roadside trees. Steve and Henry and I put on boots and raincoats and headed out into the gale, but there wasn’t much at stake – a lawnmower, some flowerpots, bikes and gas cans and gardening tools. A neighbor stopped by and gave us a hand, and an hour later we had filled the basement and garage with our stuff, thrown our sopping clothes into the dryer, and settled down to listen to the wind and rain lashing the windows. We ate soup at five on that wild, windy night and by the time the power went out at six, the dishes were done. In the morning, with the lights back on and the clocks reset, we turned to the tv to see what was happening beyond our horizons.

All week, the images of devastation have burned into our collective consciousness. Having ascertained that friends and loved ones are alive and safe, we watch the news with a combination of horror and disbelief and grim fascination. How could this be happening? The heartbreaking scenes of fire, flooding, destruction, and loss are almost too much to assimilate here in the comfort of my own business-as-usual life. The coffee drips and the heat kicks on and the laptop pings the arrival of email, while not at all far from here, in homes and neighborhoods no different from this one, thousands of people wait for the basics to be restored: water, lights, gasoline, phone lines.

“Overwhelmed emotionally,” a friend typed at dawn this morning. Although she is fine, the city she called home for decades is not. How to make sense of that?

I’m not the only one who’s laid awake this week, in the grip of vague fear and nameless anxiety, safe and yet unsettled by the knowledge that while I snuggle into flannel sheets in a warm house, others go without.

“It seems almost like a betrayal,” I said to Steve at breakfast this morning as we ate cereal and read the New York Times, “to have it so easy while so many others are suffering. I’m not even sure how to feel, other than helpless and lucky and sad all at once.”

This afternoon, another email from a dear friend: “I just want to return those baby boys to their mother and the photographs to those who lost them and life to the man who was crushed by the tree. I want to do what can’t be done.”

That is surely the crux of it. Wanting to do what can’t be done, we’re reminded that all life is fleeting, security an illusion, suffering part of the human condition, the threshold of death never further than a step away.

Perhaps the only way to move beyond fear and helplessness is to cultivate a different response. Aware that we are, all of us, participants in this great ongoing dance of both living and dying, we can gently transform sorrow for all that’s lost into gratitude for all that is. Awakened to the fragility of our own existence, we do see through fresh eyes: each moment is a new thing, life itself a gift. And any act of kindness, no matter how small, brings a bit more light into the darkness.

Compassion, it turns out, is a powerful antidote to helplessness. And so I remind myself to simply stop, and look around. There is always some way to be useful, someone nearby who could use a hand, a hug, a listening ear, some kind of sustenance, be it physical or spiritual or emotional.

“Anything you do from the soulful self,” says activist and writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “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.”

She goes on to offer an assignment particularly suited for these chaotic and confusing times, one that just may be worth ordering an entire life around: “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 the world.”

Slowly then, day by day and bit by bit, what is broken will surely be healed. Each and every part of the world is within someone’s reach. Sometimes, our arms are even longer than we know. Meanwhile, with full hearts, we carry on. We do what we can, with what we have, from where we are.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

“You must feel so proud of yourself, to have written a book and had it published,” a reader said last week.  I paused, fork in hand, not sure how to respond.  As the  speaker at an annual library fundraiser, I was surrounded that day by women who love books, avid readers all.  So I was touched by this woman’s well-intentioned words. Good books nourish our souls.  To write one is, perhaps, to offer a kind of sustenance.  But for me, pride is not an emotion that has ever been associated with being an author.

And publishing a book has not felt like an achievement so much as yet another life challenge to be met.  It’s been quite a lesson in, among other things: how to be vulnerable (some of those Amazon reviewers can be cruel), how to let go (there is something on every page that I’d rewrite if I could), how to overcome fear (I am a nervous public speaker, and author appearances are part of the gig), becoming comfortable with  self-promotion (if I don’t sell my book, no one else will), and getting comfortable, too, with admitting how much I don’t know (just because I’ve written about motherhood and mid-life does not mean I am wise about these things).

Publishing a book has also been an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, thanks to the many readers who have taken the time to respond to my story with heartfelt letters, invitations, and profoundly honest  reflections about their own lives. I feel honored to be the recipient of these stories and  grateful for so many new connections and opportunities.  Without question, my life has been enriched, tenfold, by the readers who have written back.

But pride? Not really, not even for a minute.

Yesterday afternoon, however, standing in my kitchen and holding a brand new, about-to-be-published, hardcover book in my hands, I just about burst with pride.  Here is a publishing story that strengthens my faith in the power of words, the goodness of people, and even the embattled publishing industry itself.

Early in 2003, I got a call from my ex-husband’s twin sister.  Her college room mate had been writing short stories for years, she explained, while raising her two children, but had never tried to publish any of her work. Now Beverly was battling pancreatic cancer and her odds did not look good. Jenny thought that some words of encouragement from an editor might cheer her friend, and she was wondering if I’d be willing to take a look at a manuscript.

I’ve read more manuscripts by friends, and friends of friends, over the years than I can count.  But in all those hours of reading and composing carefully worded letters in response, I don’t think I did myself, or many of those writers, any real favors.  I never “discovered” a great new voice, and I delivered a lot of news that people didn’t want to hear.  Sometimes, that news felt so much like personal rejection that relationships I treasured became frayed, or unraveled altogether.  And so, at some point  when my children were small and it was all I could do to meet my own work deadlines anyway, I decided that the only way to stem the tide and prevent any more friendships from cooling, was to create a simple, across-the-board policy of “no.”  It seemed easier, and kinder, to  say that I had retired from reading unpublished manuscripts altogether, than to spend any more time doing volunteer work that seemed, more often than not, to result in hurt feelings and dashed dreams.

But this request was different. Even an amicable divorce divides a family. In my own case–married too young and divorced within five years–the split was polite, swift, and complete.  I’d always loved my husband’s sister.  I hadn’t spoken to her in years.  And so, when she broke our long silence to ask a favor, I was happy, relieved even, to oblige.  Here was a way to clear the air between us at long last, to catch up on the news of her life, to do a small kindness and to be of some use.

Jenny chose a couple of her friend’s stories and mailed them to me.  By the time I had read the first one, about two young sisters gathering flowers and a mother dying in childbirth, I was in tears.  I also knew:  Here was a real writer.  I read through the rest of the pages in one sitting, marveling at the language, deeply moved by the lives of these two sisters. And for once, I knew exactly what to say to the author.  “Keep writing.” And, “Your stories should absolutely be published.”

A few months later, I heard from Jenny again.  Beverly had died, she told me, but the letter I’d written her had brightened her last weeks.  It had also given her the determination to keep working for as long as she possibly could, writing and revising the stories that she would leave behind, the stories that a stranger had read and deemed “publishable.”

A year or so and several emails and phone calls later, Beverly’s stories returned to me, this time as a complete manuscript, lovingly assembled after her death by her husband Jay and her writing teacher, Jenifer Levin.  Would I read them again, in their entirety?  Might I have some ideas about what to do next?

The stories held up. More than that, they were full of life and detail.  Completely realized, fleshed out and expanded in the months before Beverly died, they contained a whole vanished world, populated by people as real and quirky as any characters I’d ever met.  I loved them. And yet this time there was no letter to write or author to call, no writer to encourage, just a dedicated husband who, in the wake of his wife’s death, wanted to share her literary gifts with the world and carry forward her dream of one day publishing a book.

For weeks the manuscript sat on my desk, as I began packing up our suburban house for a move.  Distracted by the dissembling of my own carefully crafted world of home and garden and friends and neighbors, busy disposing of many of our possessions and packing the rest into storage boxes, I felt the weight of this unfinished, unspoken commitment — a commitment to a woman I’d never met but to whom I now felt intimately connected.  How to help?  I made a call or two, had a copy of Beverly’s manuscript sent to my own agent, and was discouraged to hear exactly what I’d already suspected:  getting a first book of fiction published is hard enough these days.  But without an author to promote it, or the promise of future work and a long career ahead?  Not a chance.

The week before we moved to New Hampshire, I drove into Boston to participate on a literature panel. A group of authors and editors had been charged that day with judging just over a hundred manuscripts and dispensing grant money to a handful of the most promising writers.  Over lunch, I mentioned to Howard Frank Mosher that I had a manuscript at home that struck me as eminently stronger than any of the work we’d spent the morning underwriting.  His response surprised me.  “I would really love to read that manuscript,” he said.

And so it was that this extraordinary writer and energetic champion of writers became Beverly’s next great  fan.  Howard not only read the manuscript, he took it upon himself to write an eloquent introduction to it, a critical response that could pave the way with publishers reluctant to take a flier on a novel-in-stories by a deceased, unknown, unpublished writer.

There are quite a few of us now, midwives to this book that is about to be born at last. Beverly’s family believed all along that her voice would not be silenced by death.  And one by one, those of us who were touched by that singular voice have joined their quiet, determined effort.  An agent friend from my New York publishing days read the manuscript and then wholeheartedly took up the cause.  It took a while, but eventually she found an editor who saw the vision and expanded on it.  And next week, thanks to the efforts of a small group of committed believers, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen will be published by Viking Press.  Beverly will speak at no library luncheons. She will not have the pleasure of hearing from her readers, nor regret an ill-chosen phrase on a page, nor feel the burden of having to earn out her advance or produce a second book.  But I hope that, wherever she is, she is watching, and that she does feel proud.  Proud of her legacy, proud that her work has already inspired such  enthusiasm and  dedication, and proud of her circle of fans and friends, each of whom did his or her own small part to bring her wonderful book into print at last.  It is a group that I am so very proud to be a part of.

Looking back now, to that summer morning seven years ago, when I took a call from my former sister-in-law and agreed to read a few short stories, I am reminded all over again of my favorite quote, the words by Clarissa Pinkola Estes that I do my best to live by:  “You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity, can cause to be set in motion. . . Mend the part of the world that is within your reach.”  Small kindnesses ripple outward, sometimes far, far beyond the limits of our own limited knowledge and understanding.  Sometimes, just be saying “yes,” we do set extraordinary events into motion.  Beverly’s book will arrive in the stores next Thursday, graced with advance praise from the likes of Stephen King, Elizabeth Strout, and Howard Frank Mosher.  But the words I like best come from an advance reader on Amazon, a woman from California who received an uncorrected bound galley and wrote in her online review:  “These characters are not archetypes, they are people.  They don’t represent any idea or theory; they are themselves.  Things happen as they do simply because life is wild and unpredictable.”

So it is.