our America

UnknownLet us cultivate a culture of kindness. In that moment, we are determining the outcome of the world.
~ Sakyong Mipham

I know I’m not the only one finding it impossible this summer to make sense of world events. I suspect you, too, are mourning the senseless deaths of innocent people at home and abroad, looking in vain after each new round of violence for answers to the seemingly unanswerable question “why?”, and trying to cultivate an informed, thoughtful attitude toward our presidential candidates.

Perhaps, like me, you assign yourself articles to read written by journalists from the left and the right, writers and reporters who do their homework, who think deeply about where we stand as a country and who choose their words with care. Perhaps you, too, are struggling to keep your heart open to all people, to opinions that conflict with your own, to the concerns and worries of friends and family members who see things differently. Sometimes very, very differently.

It’s not easy being a good citizen these days. In the past couple of weeks two of my friends have confessed to blocking or defriending those whose political postings on social media cause them angst. Others have expressed a desire for Facebook to remain a place where we can enjoy browsing photos of our friends’ children and pets and vacations, without being confronted with their opinions, especially when they conflict with our own.

I have recently deleted political comments from my own Facebook page, remarks that were disrespectful, rude, or insulting — not to me, but to others. To do so causes me pain, for I value a free flow of ideas and information as much as anyone. But then, name-calling and personal insults don’t fall into that category.  I believe there’s a difference between conversation, which demands empathy and a willingness to listen with an open mind; and invective, which is about hearts and  minds that have been willfully shut down.

I don’t have to tell you: there are many loud, belligerent voices out there, all straining to be heard. Turn on the TV or radio, scan your news feed, scroll through Twitter, and you will find them. Voices full of accusation and suspicion, hatred and superiority, disdain and incivility. Voices eager to label and vilify. Voices that separate us from one another, that seem bent on dividing souls rather than uniting them. Voices quick to judge, voices meant to instill fear, voices that incite distrust or even violence. There are voices that condone cruelty, voices raised in self-righteous fury, voices that disregard quiet, unassailable truth in favor of suspicion and innuendo and outright lies. There are voices that speak the language of the F-bomb, the bully, the oppressor. And, alas, there seem to be very few voices asking simple questions of the heart, such as, “Tell me why you feel this way?” It’s a bleak and painful chorus, the kind of dysfunctional acting out we would never tolerate in our own homes or in our own families.

And yet somehow we’ve allowed this disgraceful shouting match to become our national dialogue. [continue…]

Tender

snow angelAs I type these words, the world beyond my window is blanketed by snow.  There is silence in the house, save for the hum of the refrigerator, the whisper of warm air rising from the grates in the floor.  I’ve laid in groceries, mopped the salt and grit from the entryway, put tulips in a vase on the table.  The shoveling and snow-clearing can wait. There is no place to go, nothing to do but chop and roast some vegetables later for dinner.  Time slows. Edges soften. I feel a weight in my heart slowly begin to lift, my breath settle back into a deeper rhythm, my own sense of myself returning.

For a week I’ve been struggling with some old, familiar demons.  The fear of not being enough.  The need to protect my tenderest, most vulnerable feelings from the harsh light of day.  Self-doubt.  Regret for things said and unsaid in a relationship I cherish.  The wish that I could feel less, hurt less, and slough off more.   A piercing disappointment that try as I might to shape my life, there is and will always be so much that’s beyond my control or understanding.  The realization that I’m not quite as good at non-attachment as I like to think I am.

“The root of all suffering,” the Buddhists say, “is the desire for things to be different than they are.”

So simple.  So true.  But knowing it is so doesn’t make the wanting and the wishing go away.  [continue…]

This is 55

H & KI’ve been fifty-five for a little over a week now. Rounding this corner, finding myself squarely in the long-shadowed afternoon of my own life, has given me pause.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately gazing out the window in my kitchen, watching the sunlit leaves float from tree to ground.  The days, the hours, even the moments, feel ripe and full — time to be cherished rather than rushed through.

And so, on this autumn afternoon I shut my laptop.  For the first time in years, I pick up a pad of paper and a pen instead.  I grab a sweater and head outside to write.  Perhaps what I’m yearning for is a different kind of knowing – words that come from the still, silent place in my soul, a glimpse of my own depths, some intimation of my rightful place in the world now that I’ve crested the arc of life and begun my descent down the other side.

55.  How strange it feels to write that pair of fives, to associate them with me. Have I really been alive that long, half a century plus five?  And what exactly am I, now that I’m no longer technically middle-aged but not exactly old yet, either?

I turn to a fresh page, brush a stray leaf from my hair.  [continue…]

Working toward compassion

sunriseI try, pretty much every morning, to be present for the dawn, even if it’s only to stand outdoors shivering in my flip flops and pajamas, gazing eastward. Often I snap a photo as the sun makes its entrance, amazed always at the silent miracle: the gift of another day.

Although I tend to wake up with all sorts of emotions already swirling through my consciousness, indifference is never one of them. Instead – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – I’m often as not overcome with a wild brew of feelings as I stand on my small patch of earth and try to contemplate the much larger world out beyond my view and understanding.

Early yesterday morning, unguarded and unsettled, ears attuned to birdsong and wind, watching the sky brighten and the landscape glow with golden light, it was hard to imagine how life can possibly be both so beautiful and so horrific.

How, I wondered, am I to hold in my small, imperfect human heart both the tragedy that unfolded in Boston on Monday and, at the same time, gratitude that no one I know was hurt? How do we process the unimaginable?

On Monday afternoon, I drove a dear friend to the doctor and then we stopped for ice cream downtown. We sat outside in the mild sunshine eating peppermint stick and chocolate, happy in our innocence, our only worry the fact that we were filling our bellies way too close to dinner time. At home a few minutes later, lacing up my sneakers to take a walk, I had no idea what to make of a text that arrived from Jack saying, “I’m safe.” My first, thoughtless response was, “Well of course you are.”

Only when I opened my computer a moment later, and saw the scrolling news on the Boston Globe website, did I realize how lucky I was that the very first news I heard of the bombings came in the form of assurance from my younger son that he was all right. And yet, alongside my own relief was the realization that thousands of others were still awaiting news of loved ones, and that when it finally did come, not all the news would be good. Indeed, for many it would be devastating.

When tragedy strikes, it feels as if the entire world should stop and reassemble itself into some new pattern. Given the way grief, loss, and violence rip through our own precious complacency, we look around for some corresponding external shift, half expecting the moon and sun and stars to change course, too; wanting the entire universe to register and accommodate our human loss and somehow render it fathomable.

It doesn’t happen.

The sun rises in the morning, unperturbed. The sky turns bright and sheer as a veil and slowly, imperceptibly, the last rim of snow vanishes under the eaves on the north side of the house. Out front, as they do each spring, the indefatigable pansies tip their tiny purple faces toward the warmth. The birds take up their song, regardless. Overhead, a pair of great blue herons glide silently toward the pond, reminding me of the steadiness of their return, year after year. The world spins on, abiding.

How we choose to live in it, and where we look for meaning, is up to us. Standing outside in the early morning — open, attentive, reverent – I allow myself to be filled with the solace of nature’s eternal rhythms. Here, in the gentle breeze upon my cheek, in the joy of watching my dog run at full tilt, pouring across the field, in the squish of mud beneath my boots, I am nourished and restored even as the weight of sadness sits heavily in my heart. Reminded that I’m never far removed from the source and mystery of things, I’m reminded, too, of all that is beyond my comprehension and control.

Two days later, as the investigations into who and why and how grind on, the best response to the violence I can come up with is this: to reaffirm my faith in kindness and to commit myself even more deeply to a practice of living and speaking with compassion.

If I can remember that versions of what happened on Boylston Street on Monday afternoon are occurring each day, all over the world, then I’m reminded that we are all connected, and that there will be no lasting peace for me until there is peace for you, too, no matter who you are.

If I stop to consider that the attack that feels singular and incomprehensible to us – an assault on our home, on our Marathon, on our innocent people – is not unique at all, but the opposite, then I remember that until all people are safe, no one is safe.

If I can dissolve my own barriers and assumptions enough to taste the experience of life from inside someone else’s skin, then I take a small step out of the numbness and daze which keeps me separate from the mistakes and miseries of our own messy human creation.

Last night, Jack called and we talked on the phone for a while. “It didn’t really sink in until today,” he said, “how close I was to what happened. How it could so easily have been me, or anyone I know, there at the finish line.”

“Yes,” I said. “It took me a while to grasp that, too.”

Now I’m coming to think it is our task — as citizens of Boston, of America, and of the earth itself — to hold the truth in our hearts and minds: we are all one, and it is only through our willingness to reach out and touch the pain of others that the world will change.

Let’s get together. . .

Appearances

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, this 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. (And to read a lovely article about this special bookstore, click here.)

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 this weekend, 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 we can finally meet in person.

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.  I’m happy to sign book plates for your gift books (just send me an email through the Contact link.) Or, you can order any of my books — signed and personalized as per your instructions — directly through my local independent 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.”  To order, click 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, I will say that each and every reader review on  Goodreads and on Amazon is hugely appreciated  and hugely helpful too.  Thank you for spreading the word!

 

 

Light, Dark

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image15104502 Light. Last Sunday afternoon. The brief, brilliant sun bedazzling through the high window in the town hall auditorium. The audience arriving, shedding coats, searching for friends; the musicians warming up on stage. Henry in his tux, a quick smile (just for me) as he files past to take his place on the risers, preparing to sing. My neighbor Debbie sitting beside me, sharing her chocolate chip cookies. Familiar faces in the crowd. Christmas trees festooned with white lights, men in holiday sweaters and red neckties, the lady selling homemade baked goods at the table in the back, the rustle of programs, the golden light, the expectant hush that hovers just before the first note of song bursts through the silence and takes flight. My son, who will turn twenty-three this week, standing onstage before a packed house in our home town; his deep, sure tenor filling the room, filling my heart till it pushes against my chest and overflows and I am brushing away happy, astonished tears. All these years, and I’ve never once heard this most private child of mine sing out loud — till now, here, this deeply felt solo performed in a room packed with people who have paid money to come.

Dark. The night before, crowding into the small room at the funeral home, surrounded by family from near and far. The photograph of my uncle as a young man himself, crew-cut earnest and just out of school, gazing toward an unknown future that would hold more than its share of heartbreak. The small urn full of ashes, a fishing scene etched onto the side, and above it that photo I’ve known all my life, the same photo that hung on the parlor wall of my grandmother’s house alongside two more, a triptych of brothers framed in gold and presiding silently there through the long quiet afternoons of my childhood, when I would study every ancestral image, every picture in the crowded gallery of family likenesses.

Reassembling those memories to meet the present: the dear, familiar faces of aunts and uncles and cousins, each one softened and creased by age and time; it has been too long since I last saw them. My cousin’s children, suddenly grown and confronting a new truth: even larger-than-life grandfathers die. (Wasn’t it just yesterday that they were children running wild with my own boys through the frozen November field behind my parents’ house?)

Anecdotes gathered up and shared haltingly. The unaccustomed effort of giving voice to what’s hard and sad and lost. The three brothers who have suddenly become two, oldest and youngest, the one in between gone at seventy-one. An image in my mind from years ago: my brawny uncle with his sideburns and beard and aviator glasses, his inexhaustible supply of stories, holding forth at Thanksgiving dinner, spinning tales from events he remembered that everyone else had long since forgotten. And then, later, the long trip home, fighting to stay awake as my father drives down the empty highway. The odd sensation of being both a fifty-four year old mother of two grown sons and, at the same time, a child again myself, sitting alone in the back seat of my parents car, the backs of their heads as familiar to me as my own two hands.

Light. It is dusk. The only lamp on in the dark, silent house is here, beside the sofa where I sit surrounded by evening shadows. I type these words slowly, from within a small, golden patch of brightness.

Dark. The paragraphs above, written early yesterday morning, so trivial today, as the news from Connecticut settles upon our shoulders like a heavy, black cloak of brutal knowing. Innocent children dead, families ripped apart, the nation shaken once again by tragedy beyond reason or comprehension. Grief and anger, the deep sense of failure and helplessness. Gratitude for a life that is intact intermingled with mourning for lives lost and for lives ruined.

Sun and shadow. Joy and heartache. Life and death. To be human is to become intimate with both darkness and light. It has always been so. Yet on this somber December day, we are asked to do even more: somehow we must carry on with our lives as they are and, too, we must stop in our tracks, and look with clear gaze into the ruins.

How to respond to such a random, meaningless act of violence? How to open ourselves to the grief caused by this rampage of mindless destruction? How to accommodate and embrace both the darkness and the light of today?

Perhaps there is no good answer, other than to honor the sanctity of life by loving more and loving better, whatever that means for each of us. Compassion is the thread that binds us to one another. Compassion is the balm that heals the soul. Compassion is the offering we carry to the altar of regret and anger and grief. Compassion is what clears our vision, so we may begin to see, even in the midst of the darkest and most unspeakable horror, the light of something larger than our own understanding at work. Compassion is what allows us to seek redemption in the midst of tragedy — to reach out a hand and step toward rather than away from, to act rather than to wait for others to act in our stead. Compassion is, perhaps, the point of the journey, both our purpose and our calling, the place where healing and hope for tomorrow resides. A reminder that in all its shadow and its light, this fragile, fleeting life is full of beauty and meaning nonetheless.

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