who is we?

If you’ve ever fallen out of touch with a friend, you already know this: reconnecting isn’t easy. You quiet your nerves and deliberate for a moment before, finally, after months, picking up the phone just to say “hi.” You wait a beat or two before hitting send on an email with a header like, “Everything ok? I’ve missed you!” That’s sort of how it feels to me today, as I sit in my somewhat messy, decidedly lived-in kitchen and type these sentences onto the screen. I could clean up all the dishes from the veggie soup I’ve just made and rinse out the cans for recycling. Or I can let them wait, take a deep breath, put my fingers on the keys, and trust that  words will come.

This morning I listened to an interview with writer Pico Iyer in which he explains why he spends the first hours of his day in silence. “I just sit there,” he says, “trying to sift through my projections, my distortions, trying to find the voice behind my chatter, trying to find, of all the things passing through my head, if there is any one thing worth committing to the page.” Although I haven’t been doing much sitting lately – there are too many weeds in the garden to allow for that – I’ve been engaged in a similar kind of daily sorting and sifting and wondering. “Speak only if it improves upon the silence,” Gandhi advised, words I’ve pondered while questioning my own writing, how to respond appropriately to the unfolding events in our world, and whether there’s any need to add one more voice to the clamor.

Reading the New York Times over breakfast, tuning in for the latest CNN breaking news updates as I peel potatoes in the evening, I’m at once pulled in and appalled. How to reconcile these small pleasures – the comfort of a morning cup of coffee, the routine of making a meal in my own familiar kitchen – with the deeply disturbing developments reported in the paper or on my TV screen? [continue…]

activism for introverts

When I began writing here in 2009, I was feeling my way. I did not have a Facebook page or a Twitter account or a smartphone and, for a private person like me, the idea of creating personal content to post online was somewhat terrifying. My earliest blog posts were done at the request of my New York publisher, to help create a social media presence that might result in a few additional sales for the memoir I’d just written about being the mother of teenagers. Although the word “platform” wasn’t part of my lexicon, my twenty-six-year-old publicist told me I needed one. And so, with the help of my then college-age son Henry, this website was born. I had no real plan, other than to write about whatever gifts and challenges my own daily life handed me and to see how things went.

One thing I was pretty certain about was that I wouldn’t delve into either religion or politics in public. For one thing, my intention at the time was to build a community of readers – and there’s no better way to lose a friend or a fan than to stir up the waters of dissent and disagreement on divisive topics such as God and elected officials. [continue…]


IMG_5409It is still dark as I type these words, though I’ve been awake for hours on this snow-hushed morning of the year’s shortest day.

Soon, I will turn lights on, brew coffee, let the dog out, confront the pile of unwrapped Christmas gifts in the basement. But here in the shadowed quiet before dawn, I’m thinking of gifts that aren’t wrapped and placed under a tree. Gifts that are hidden within each of us, waiting to be brought forth and shared with the world.

This week, to celebrate Henry’s birthday, our family went to see the dark, dazzling revival of “Pippin” at the American Repertory Theatre in Harvard Square. “How far will you go to be extraordinary?” the show’s narrator asks Pippin, an aimless young man with oversized hopes and dreams who’s desperate to find his “corner of the sky.” Will he choose a life that’s mundane and ordinary, or sacrifice all in exchange for one blazing moment of glory?

Last night, we went to another production, right here in our home town: an abridged version of the medieval Shepherd’s Play, performed in a church hall by members of our local life-sharing communities, men and women whose mental and physical challenges require special care in special homes devoted to their well-being.

Rehearsals for each of these performances began months ago. All fall, the actors in each committed themselves to the work of learning lines and music, preparing for their roles. And then, when the moment came to shine, each and every one of them got up on stage, took a long deep breath, and offered everything they had to give.

In the case of “Pippin”: death-defying, gasp-inducing acrobatics; soaring, searing interpretations of the killer Stephen Schwartz score, and a faithful recreation of Bob Fosse’s dazzling original choreography. Thrilling moments of pure, over-the-top theatrical magic and stripped-bare moments of aching, human vulnerability.

And at The Shepherd’s Play: simple lines painstakingly recited (with some unobtrusive support from unflappable volunteers and patient staff members), age-old songs and exuberant comic bits, a few inevitable stumbles and a few unexpected onstage tears. And, yes, here too, thrilling moments of theatrical magic and stripped-bare moments of aching, human vulnerability.

In the plush theatre, my eyes filled as a young Broadway star sang an exquisite love song to the older woman who finally cracks open his heart. And in the dusty church hall, I wept again, as a stout, shy young Mary hesitantly lifted her arms in silent rapture to receive the divine touch of an awkward, determined angel Gabriel, a Gabriel whose hair stuck up and whose mouth was a little odd and whose words were a little garbled, and whose white tunic didn’t quite fit his gawky frame.

At the end of both of these plays, the audiences leapt to their feet. The ovations were long and heartfelt and joy-filled– our grateful human response to gifts shared openly, offered in good faith and with nothing held back.

There is, of course, no way to compare these two productions, the extravagant New York- bound musical and the humble small-town pageant. One is not “better” than the other; they are both special, both worthy, both performed with all the love and courage their players had to offer. I wouldn’t have missed either of them.

And side by side, they have set me to thinking. All year, I’ve been squirreling presents away in closets; yesterday, I was out in the stores, buying yet a few more. But today, as I wrap these gifts and put them under the tree, I realize how quick I am to judge my own gifts and find them wanting.

I love finding the perfect something for a friend, surprising a loved one with just the “right” treasure, taking time to spend with those near and dear, answering letters from strangers. I take deep satisfaction in sharing the books I love, the food I prepare, the seats at our dinner table, the hours in my day, the freshly made bed in the guest room.

Yet, I am much less sure when it comes to sharing the gift of myself. Looking at my schedule of bookstore visits and public appearances in January and February, my stomach clenches into a tight little knot. Can I really go out and do all that? Will I disappoint readers who expect more from me than I can possibly deliver? Do people understand that, just because I’ve written a book about growing older, I don’t actually have all that much figured out? That I’m still grappling myself with losses and changes and questions that leave me at a loss for answers?

At the end of his two and a half hour search for fulfillment, Pippin discovers that his own “corner of the sky” isn’t fame or fortune after all, but the place in his heart that’s filled with love for others. His search ends not with a blaze of glory, but with acceptance of his own ordinary, un-glorious and imperfect but truly compassionate self. He chooses a life that’s authentic and meaningful to him, rather than a flashy trick to impress an audience.

The message hit home. As I watch my own two sons at twenty and twenty-three, each struggling in their own way to make sense of their inchoate hopes and dreams, each wondering what mark they’ll leave on the world, I do know what they cannot possibly have learned yet: it’s the journey itself, not the destination, that matters most.

Only time and hard-won experience can teach them this lesson, that the more truth they are willing to risk along the way, the more courageously they are willing to give of themselves, the more they will have to offer. And, of course, each time they do step forward and bring their own humble gifts into the world, the more they will receive in return.

Perhaps that’s exactly the reminder I need myself at this vulnerable moment before my new book arrives in bookstores. And perhaps this is my task for now: to remember that my job over these next few months isn’t to judge the worthiness of my gift, but to find the courage to show up and offer it.

For what, after all, do any of us really want from one another? Certainly it is not more stuff. Nor is it perfection or fool-proof answers or second-hand wisdom. We want more presence, not more presents. And the most valuable gift we have to give is, always, the unvarnished, unadorned truth of who we really are. Joy comes when we are both courageous and generous – brave enough to be who we are, and as generous with the gift of our own flawed, vulnerable, unique selves as we are with the gifts we wrap up in pretty paper and ribbons and bows.

A quick MAGICAL JOURNEY update – and books to give away!

Events: I hope to meet you in 2013! To see where I’ll be and when, visit my events page by CLICKING HERE. (Check back often!)

News: My deep gratitude this week to fellow travelers David Abrams and Beth Kephart, two much-admired writers who graciously share their own gifts by generously celebrating the works of others. I am honored to be featured on their websites.

CLICK HERE for Beth’s. And HERE for David’s.

Finally, it’s not too late to win an advance copy.

  • You can enter to win one of ten that Goodreads is giving away by clicking HERE.
  • And, I have five author copies right here on my desk, waiting to be signed and shared with you. To win, subscribe to my weekly newsletter (if you haven’t already done so), and then leave a comment here. (Any comment at all will do, but feel free to share a gift you’ve given this year, or one you’ve received that touched your heart.) I’ll draw one winner at random each day from December 26-30.

Joy! In the meantime, from my house to yours, warm wishes for a most wonderful holiday. May you both generously give and gratefully receive the precious present of presence!


A few months ago my friend Margaret Roach gave away a cookbook on her site A Way to Garden. I read her description of Heidi Swanson’s beautiful recipes, considered the lush photo on the book jacket, and gave in — as I rarely do — to an impulsive on-line purchase. (Apologies to my much-loved and frequented local bookstore!) I wasn’t going to wait an entire week to see if I might win a copy of Super Natural Every Day; I ordered the book that very moment and two days later I had it in my hands. Which is how this spring has come to be, in our house, The Time of Those Amazing Cookies.

There has been so much going on here that I haven’t written about — the school year ending, boys coming home (and leaving again), family dinners, countless meals and loads of laundry and breakfasts that go on for hours, a piano concert by Henry, laughter and tears, good times with good friends, forsythia and lilacs and irises and peonies blooming and passing in their turn, hot days and cold ones, walks in the woods and runs on the bike-path. We’ve put almost a thousand miles on the car, driving to New York City, to the Berkshires to pick Jack up from school, to Maine to deliver Henry to his summer job, to Boston to deliver Jack to his.

It seems that, no matter how early I get up in the morning or how late I stay up at night, I can’t quite manage to place a margin around these days. And I haven’t written a word. (I figure that hasty e-mails and entries in my calendar don’t count as writing.) Every minute, I say to myself, justifying my lack of output, has been spoken for, busy, packed.

I’ve loved this time of family comings and goings, have loved having both boys at home and asleep in their own beds, “each fate,” as Sharon Olds has written, “like a vein of abiding mineral not discovered yet.” I’ve loved being fully engaged right where I am, as wife and mother and aunt and friend and gardener; have loved each and every one of these spectacular, lengthening days of June.

At the same time, I find myself a bit in awe of, even a bit envious of, those who feel as if they aren’t quite living unless they’re writing. I think of these people as the “real” writers, the ones who weave their writing right into the fabric of their days, no matter what’s going on around them. Real writers are those who are fed and sustained by the daily process of turning the raw stuff of life into shapely, meaningful prose. I wish I was one of those writers — faster, more disciplined, more determined, more productive, more — and this is the one that’s really hard to admit — courageous.

For when it comes right down to it, I know I could find or make the time to write more often than I do. It’s not really hours that I lack so much as the confidence to sit down and come face-to-face with myself. To commit my thoughts to an empty page and then to say, “This is ok, this is enough, this does the trick.” Sometimes, I just don’t have what it takes to wrestle with my own swirling mass of emotions, emotions that I can’t ever seem to adequately translate into words, especially words that can be shared.

In these last weeks I’ve sipped tea with a friend who is facing major surgery, prognosis unknown. I’ve watched my older son sit down at a piano in front of a hundred people and play a gorgeous Rachmaninoff prelude from memory. I’ve taken dawn walks with my husband and gathered around a table at my parents’ house with our entire extended family. I’ve listened in while Henry read a book to his four-year-old cousin and while Jack sang to himself in the shower. There have been sights that have left me breathless: a bluebird perched on the edge of the birdbath, a hummingbird trembling at the lip of a petunia, an alabaster peony unfurling its petals in the heat of an afternoon. And there have been moments that have made my heart swell: watching Jack walk through the door of his old high school (the one he left after sophomore year) to take SAT IIs last weekend; sitting down to dinner on the porch and holding hands with my husband and two sons as we recited the grace we’ve said together since kindergarten days; listening to Jack play his guitar; saying good-bye to Henry for the summer.

In the midst of all these comings and goings, all these meals cooked and cleaned up after, all this being and doing and celebrating, a letter arrived on Monday from a reader whose twelve-year-old son died in an accident two weeks ago. She wrote to me to say that at his memorial service last weekend she asked her best friend to read a passage from my book, a paragraph about missing, most of all, the perfectly ordinary days.

All week, her letter has haunted me, this mother’s unfathomable loss running like a quiet undercurrent through my own busyness. “Your words are helping me heal,” she wrote, “and I wanted to thank you. The memories are all I have now and I thank you for showing me how to look at life a little differently.”

Writing, for me anyway, is a slow, scary, private process. Lately, I’ve been unable to summon the part of myself that believes in the worth of what I do. I wish, for my own sake, that I’d tried to capture some of the fleeting, ordinary, yet incredibly precious moments of these last weeks, for I sense the days of togetherness already slipping away as we settle into summer schedules that keep us mostly apart. But then, for the hundredth time, I ask myself if there is anything at all I can say that I haven’t said before, or that someone else hasn’t said already, but better.

The lesson, the great, overarching truth that I keep repeating even as I learn it again and again myself, is that the sacred is in the ordinary. That it is to be found right here, right now, in our own daily lives. In our most inconsequential yet most holy connections with our children, our loved ones, our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends. In the the kitchen, the bedroom, the office, our very own backyards.

I do know that. I think that nearly everything I write is some variation on this theme. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m the only one who needs to keep hearing it, and whether, in fact, I really have run out of things to say to the rest of the world. This week, a heartbreaking, generous letter from a grieving mother reminded me of this simple, essential fact all over again. It made me think that perhaps the most important lessons do bear repeating after all. And that there are as many ways to be attentive to our lives as there are ways to pray, to grieve, to celebrate.

I am still hoping for courage. I have a new book to write, an essay due next week, guest blogs to post. And instead of getting down to work, I find myself grating chocolate, chopping apricots, baking batch after batch of cookies to share. Baking, feeding the people I love, I grant myself reprieve from the struggle to find words, words that might begin to respond to another family’s unfathomable loss or that could possibly do justice to the preciousness, the pain, the beauty, the fragility, the wonder of things just as they are.

And that brings me back to where I began here. When I’m floundering, when I lose my way on the page, I retreat to the safe haven of my kitchen counter. I am not always brave enough or self-disciplined enough to write. But I can always cook. And once I began making Heidi Swanson’s not-too-sweet but utterly extraordinary ginger cookies a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stop. It feels almost as if these cookies have expressed everything I haven’t managed to write about lately: love, empathy, joy, gratitude, pride, hope. I make batch after batch of the dough, pop it into the refrigerator, and bake more as needed. I brought ginger cookies to a friend facing her first round of radiation for breast cancer, to a special dinner where they complemented the earliest strawberries and rhubarb of the season, to my parents’ house where my little nephew definitively pronounced them “the best.” I served these cookies to my writing students and to friends who dropped by for a spur-of-the-moment supper. I made over two hundred of them for Henry’s concert, and a dozen to console Jack while he watched his favored team, the Mavericks, go down in defeat to the Miami Heat. If you have seen me in the last month, chances are I’ve handed you a warm cookie.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do,” Rumi reminds us. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Loving this life, cherishing these perfectly ordinary, radiantly beautiful summer days, I do aspire to be attentive, to be thankful for all that is. Sometimes I kneel and kiss the ground by sitting at my desk, fingers hovering over this keyboard. Sometimes, I just bake cookies.

If you were plunked down in my kitchen right now, I’d turn the oven on, start scooping teaspoonsful of fragrant dough onto the pan, and ask you to tell me the news of your day. Instead, I’ll do the next best thing — share Heidi Swanson’s lovely recipe and give you a link to her popular and wonderfully inviting blog. Meanwhile, if you decide to treat yourself to the book — and I encourage you to do so — make sure to try her amazing Baked Oatmeal, the Mostly Not Potato Salad, and the nutty, orange-scented Granola, which is hands-down the best I’ve ever tasted. (Yes, I’ve pretty much been cooking nonstop here.)

Heidi Swanson’s Ginger Cookies

1/2 cup large-grain raw or turbinado sugar
6 ounces bittersweet 70% cacao dark chocolate
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter cut into small cubes
1/4 cup unsulphured blackstrap molasses
2/3 cup fine grain natural cane sugar
2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 large egg, well beaten
1 cup plump dried apricots, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350, place racks in the top and bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper or a Silpat mat, and place the large-grain sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.
Finely chop the chocolate bar into 1/8-inch pieces, more like shavings really.
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt.
Heat the butter in a saucepan until it is just barely melted. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses, sugar, and fresh ginger. The mixture should be warm, but not hot at this point, if it is hot to the touch let it cool a bit. Whisk in the egg. Now pour this over the flour mixture, add apricots, and stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate. Chill for 30 minutes, long enough for the dough to firm up a bit.
I like these cookies tiny, barely bite-sized, so I scoop out the dough in exact, level tablespoons. I then tear those pieces of dough in two before rolling each 1/2 tablespoon of dough into a ball shape. From there, grab a small handful of the big sugar you set aside earlier and roll each ball between your palms to heavily coat the outside of each dough ball. Place dough a few inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until cookies puff up, darken a bit, and get quite fragrant. (In my oven, 8 minutes is just perfect.)
Makes roughly 4 dozen.
Prep time: 30 min – Cook time: 10 min

First day of school

I have had it only a few times, a sudden sense of arriving at my own front door, of being home without even knowing that I’d been away.  I felt it twelve years ago, when I first unrolled a yoga mat in the back corner of the Baron Baptiste Power Yoga Studio in Cambridge.  Never mind that the room was heated to 102 degrees and I’d dressed, unwittingly, in sweatpants and a heavy, long-sleeved shirt.  Never mind that I couldn’t bend over and come any where close to touching my toes, that I had no idea what a downward-dog was, that my body felt so ungainly and awkward and disconnected from my brain (not to mention my heart) that I spent most of the class sweating desperately and watching everyone else flow through a series of poses that looked at once impossible, and impossibly lovely, to me.  I did what I could (which wasn’t much) and knew, the way we sometimes do know these things, that I’d finally arrived at a place I’d been seeking all my life.

There was a part of me even then that dreamed of full immersion.  Sometimes, I fantasized about what it might be like to study deeply, to practice for more than an hour and a half a couple of times a week, perhaps even to one day teach this practice I loved so much to others.  And always the ever-ready critic in my brain responded with all the reasons why that would never happen:  It was too late.  I already had a job, a well-paid sedentary one that required me to be at my desk every day. My kids and husband needed me. I’ve never been athletic and never will be. No matter how many years I spend on a yoga mat, I won’t have a “yoga body.” I can’t do a handstand. I’m too shy. Too uncoordinated.  Too old.

Twelve years later, and I’m even older than I was then.  But I’m also sensing that it’s time to attend more closely to my soul’s deepest longings, rather than to that inner voice that tells me what I’m not and can never be.  The truth is, my children no longer need me day in and day out, the way they once did, and my husband is quite able to take care of himself.  I don’t get paid to edit books on someone else’s schedule anymore.  And a yoga body is not the goal or the point of what I do on my yoga mat (although I certainly appreciate every little bit of core strength I manage to acquire).  The reasons I practice, the reasons I keep a mat spread on the floor between my kitchen and living room, have more to do with learning than with doing.  I practice yoga because I clench my jaw till my teeth ache, and tuning in to my breath is a gentle, necessary lesson in letting go.  I practice because so often I fail at being the wife, the mother, the friend I yearn to be, and learning to accept myself as I am on my yoga mat helps me accept who I am in the world.  I practice because I tend toward judgment, and yoga softens my rough edges.  I practice because I get so easily lost in worry or regret or plans that I miss the beauty right under my nose, and yoga is a lovely wake up call, my own daily reminder to be fully present in the moment–by-moment experience of being alive.

Early this morning, I threw all of my doubts and fears and nerves and excitement into the car, along with my yoga mat and duffel bag, and drove to the Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts.  For the next month, I’ll live in a dorm room here with a bunch of other aspiring teachers and practice yoga two to eight hours a day.  All afternoon yesterday, as I vacuumed and dusted, watered plants and changed the beds, I fought back tears, wondering if I’d been nuts to think I could do this, and how I could possibly have imagined that being away from my home and family for such a long time was a good idea.   Every insecurity that’s ever plagued me came roaring back:  the embarrassment of showing up for the first day of first grade with a lunch box that was horribly wrong; third grade – the wrong stockings; eighth grade – the wrong friends; tenth grade – the wrong everything.  It’s been years since I’ve endured the butterflies in the stomach that always marked the first day of school —  but today is the first day of school all over again, and those butterflies knew just where to find me.

Funny, how I almost had myself convinced that I’d constructed a solid, reasonably confident  grown-up self —  and then all it took was the anticipation of a single step out of my  own well-established comfort zone to bring me right back in touch with the uncertain child I once was.

“Nervous?” my own son Jack asked me at breakfast this morning.  “Very,”  I admitted, “but in a good way.  And grateful, too.”  As a girl, I took refuge in books and the world of my imagination.  Since I didn’t quite fit in, I mostly opted out, choosing solitude and stories over socializing and physical activity, both of which were too scary to deal with.  So much easier to disappear than to negotiate the complicated social hierarchy of my more with-it peers or to risk embarrassment in gym class.  I was the master of the independent study, the sick note, the excused absence.  Given that I also managed to get through four years of college without spending a single night with a room mate, setting foot in the gym, or donning a pair of sneakers, what I’m about to do now does seem a little radical. Or, maybe I’m just finally ready to show up – not only on my yoga mat, not only for my family and my friends, but also for the beautiful, challenging privilege of finding out who I am, who I might, even yet, turn out to be.

(Internet is limited at Kripalu, and my schedule these next four weeks will be intense.  I’m a rusty student, with a fat textbook to read and lots of homework to do.  So. . .while I hope to continue with a weekly blog post, I may be a little less connected here so that I can be a little more connected with matters of breath, spirit, and awareness. )