spring thaw
(inside and out)

IMG_2216 - Version 2I step out of the shower and stand dripping with my towel wrapped around me, looking out the bathroom window. The new day seems luminous, worth pausing for and gazing into even as my toes curl on the freezing tile floor.

The fields below the house are still covered with snow although the tops of the stone walls are finally visible. The sky seems a bit less austere, the sun more committed to its silent shining. It really doesn’t look like spring out there yet, with everything still bare and frozen, but something seems to have yielded. Something ineffable has changed. It’s as if the air itself is richer.

morningSomething subtle has changed inside me, too. Everything external appears the same: upper-arm skin a bit saggy, belly soft, hair thinning and badly in need of a cut, the face in the mirror looking less and less like the younger person I still feel myself inside to be and more like my Grammie Stanchfield every day. (Those puckery little vertical lines above my upper lip! Where did they come from? Her.)

And yet, my heart is lighter.

A few weeks ago, I sat on the couch in my kitchen, brushing away tears, wondering how to respond to the most recent words of someone who has hurt me deeply. [continue…]

to love like a grandmother

grammie s“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” ~Derek Wolcott

I was not the best little girl. Shy, bookish, solitary, dreamy, not athletic, a bit chubby, I was certainly no trouble-maker. At school, a year younger than most of my classmates, utterly clueless about fashion, part of no clique and always two steps behind on the latest trend, I kept my head down and my mouth shut, hoping not to be noticed. At home, where repercussions for misbehavior were swift, I did as I was told and tried to stay out of the way. I read a lot. I wrote. I colored, painstakingly, in a beloved, finely drawn coloring book with my colored pencils. I sat contentedly on the floor of my bedroom, making tiny dolls from wooden clothespins and sewing clothes for them.

But the truth is, at my grandmother’s house, I pushed the limits. When my brother and I were little we spent many weekends with our grandparents, who were happy to give my young, overworked parents a break. My grandmother who, at the age I’m remembering her, was just a few years older than I am now, seemed to me at once frail, elderly, and immortal. She was tiny, less than a hundred pounds, with feet the size of a small child’s. Asthma sometimes forced her to lie down on the couch in the middle of the day, wheezing with each breath. Her heart was weak. She was always in and out of the hospital, for gallstones and kidney stones and I don’t know what else. And yet, because I’d never known anyone to die, it never occurred to me that someday she would. [continue…]

Hard lessons

I’m probably not the only person who abandons her good habits when life speeds up, or who fails to practice when practice is the only thing that might actually save me from myself. My guess is that there are others like me, who get so frazzled and overwhelmed and caught up in the stresses of events and obligations and misunderstandings that we don’t even see the plain truth staring us in the face: there is another way. A small shift in perception, a different attitude, a quieter approach.

And yet, knowing I’m not alone, and that failure is part of being human, doesn’t make it easier to confront my shortcomings.

Writing this morning as the sky lightens, waiting quietly for words to come rather than rushing and grasping to get something down on paper, I realize that what I’m really waiting for here is a glimpse of the thread that might lead me back to me, or at least back to the person I still aspire to be: reflective, aware, moving slowly and attentively in the world rather than racing through it, all sharp elbows and jangled nerves and oblivious hustle.

The dawn sky is peach and turquoise behind the thinning canopy of golden leaves beyond my bedroom window. The clock ticks steadily on the nightstand. Gracie sighs and stretches and then goes back to sleep on the floor. My husband, away on a business trip, isn’t here to see how quickly in his absence the other side of our bed becomes strewn with notebooks and pens, a wicker basket full of paperwork, a pile of books and pillows and half-done projects.

The day ahead is already pressing in – the housework I’ve postponed, emails that are unanswered, a daunting list of book tasks and family tasks and outdoor tasks needing attention. A long drive to reconnect with a cherished college friend after a gap of nearly twenty years. It’s tempting to leap out of bed and get started, to go tearing into the day, as if by moving faster I might actually come out ahead, might win the big race to some invisible, constantly shifting finish line. Perform well enough, and I just might grasp the brass ring, might magically transform this scattered, overcommitted life I’ve created into the artful, more deliberate, simpler life I keep straining to achieve.

But looking back over the last week or so — a week of moving ever faster only to feel myself slipping more and more out of control — I do at least know this: the best thing I can do, both for myself and for those I love, is to remain here propped amongst the bed pillows for a while longer. To start the day in stillness, to sit, to breathe, and to patiently allow my heart its own slow refueling.

Gratitude for things just as they are seeps in slowly. It takes some patience to refill a soul, patience and a certain faith, too. Faith that the blessing I hunger for is already mine. I need only breathe in to receive it, exhale to offer it forth. Faith that grace isn’t a prize to be earned or claimed but rather the gift of being alive, right here and right now, in this moment, no matter how many challenges await. Faith that who I am – this deeply flawed and wanting human self – is enough. Faith that life as it is – messy and muddled and fleeting — is life just as it is meant to be. Faith that paying attention is my true spiritual practice; kindness, my real work; and love the most creative and demanding path of all.

Practice, I know now, doesn’t make perfect. The harsh, inescapable truth is that to live in this world is to both harm and heal. So is it really any wonder that we bring the greatest pain to those we care about the most? This week, I deeply hurt a friend. The injury I caused was unintentional, but no less damaging for that. Tending to these wounds, flinching at the raw and tender places in a relationship that means the world to me, I wonder how to make amends. There’s nothing to be gained by dissecting the errors of my ways all over again. That list is long, and nothing special. And, as poet Mary Oliver reminds, “You want to cry aloud for your mistakes. But to tell the truth the world doesn’t need any more of that sound.”

What can I do but this: Say “I’m sorry.” Bow low and accept forgiveness as its offered, in whatever form it takes. Set down the heavy, awkward burden of shame and take up in its place the worthy work of paying closer attention. Be humbled before all that I don’t know. And then move mindfully forward, taking even greater care. Commit all over again to love, to kindness, to the inestimable gifts of friendship, to practice.

What have I learned? Only to keep trying. And to be grateful for every second chance, every opportunity to become more skillful in these demanding arts of living and accepting and loving.

Second Journey

“The call to a second journey usually commences when unexpected change is thrust upon you, causing a crisis of feelings so great that you are stopped in your tracks.”  — Joan Anderson, The Second Journey

I first read those words about nine months ago, sitting alone in an empty kitchen, having wondered for weeks just what I was meant to do next, now that the house was built, the long-awaited book finally written and published, the sons nearly grown.

This weekend, I went to meet the woman who wrote them, the woman who once ran away from home to spend a year in a cottage by the sea, in order to find her way back to her own true self, a self long since lost to the demands of marriage, motherhood, career, and the needs of others.

Packing the car on Friday afternoon, I still wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for on my own “Second Journey” retreat, or why I was going off to spend a weekend with a group of strangers on Cape Cod, when I had more than enough to do right here — weeds to pull and a garden to plant, a manuscript to read for a friend, a husband who’d have preferred to have me around, a to-do list filling the whole right page of my calendar.

And yet.  The ache I’ve felt deep in my breast this year has not been assuaged by any of the small, worthy tasks that fill my days.  I do all I can, in all directions, and then lie awake at night, worrying about things beyond my control. I meditate in the morning, practice living in the moment, and yet carry a deep sadness for moments already gone. I love the people in my life, and yet feel battered again and again by unsettling, difficult conversations.  I reach out to my teenaged son, and feel not connection but more distance, our relationship raw and tender to the touch, like second-degree burns on my heart.  I answer my e-mails, read a little, write a little, spend time with my family, bring lunch to a friend. The days are busy and full and good. Still, the question nibbles at my edges: What now?

Saturday afternoon, standing barefoot on the beach, I glimpsed the beginnings of an answer.  Part of the ache, I know, comes from my own sense of still not being quite up to the job of being me.  Not a good enough mother, wife, or friend, no matter how much I care.  Not a good enough writer, or yoga student, or meditator, no matter how hard I try.  Not a good enough public speaker, or checkbook balancer, or wage earner, no matter how much effort I put in.

I know that where I see only lack and failure, others see competence. But I keep my own secret list of insecurities and shortcomings, certain that what seems to come so easily and naturally to others must be hard-won by me.  I want to be better at living my life than I am these days, to feel sufficient just as I am, more certain of what I’m meant to do now, and how I’m meant to be.

We had arrived on the outer banks by boat, rolling our pant legs up high and hopping into the clear, cold water one by one to wade ashore.  With a knowing twinkle in her eye, Joan had given us each our marching orders back at the dock, along with our bag lunches: solitude and silence.  Out here, both were easy to find.  A few steps along the beach, and I was already alone, heading out toward the breaks, the surf, the wide open stretches of dune and shore grass and wild water.  The sun was warm, the wind so fierce it whipped stinging needles of sand onto every morsel of exposed flesh.

For four hours or so, I wandered in silence, shedding layers of extra clothing along with layers of identity, feeling, thoughts, and inner chatter.  There was nothing to do but walk and look and wonder, no where to go except where my feet carried me.  No sooner had I taken a step, than the next wave rolled in, erasing my foot prints from the sand. The scouring, relentless wind washed my mind empty of thought and judgment and doubt.  Step by step, moment by moment, I relaxed.  First into a kind of inner stillness.  Then, into peace.  And from there, it was not much of a leap to joy.

How satisfying it is, to disappear, and then to be found by the world. How exhilarating, to be relieved of all expectation and commitment, and then to rediscover your own bare-naked self.  What a relief, to lighten my psychic load, to let go of all the worries and judgments and doubts I lug around day after day.  What a blessing, to see what it is that remains, after everything heavy and useless and outgrown has been dropped and left along the way.  What joy, to be slowly but surely filled right up to the brim again with love.

Far from the mainland of my daily life, it dawned on me: love allows me to get out of myself, and to be grateful for all things.  Love enables me to embrace my life exactly as it is, rather than regretting that it’s not precisely as I want it to be.  Love heals that which is split within; it restores my strength and faith, reminds me that who I am really is all right with me.

Joan Anderson calls the beach walk a scavenger hunt for the soul.  And so it is.  Sometime late in the afternoon, as I trudged against the wind, back toward the lighthouse and civilization, I picked up a wide, white, bowl of a clam shell, rubbed smooth by wind and water.  A vessel it was, but not one that could ever hold very much.  Water would flow in and out with ease, passing through this gentle curve of a cup,  as shallow as my own open hand.  This, I realized, is what I aspire to — to unfurl my fist, to allow love to pour in and to spill right out again with ease, without all the grasping and the holding that so often entangles me. How I yearn to be as pure and clean and simple as that bleached white shell:  receiving and releasing, filling and emptying and filling again, eternally open to the flow of life.

I adore Joan Anderson’s books of self-discovery and renewal, love her willingness to laugh at herself even through tears of confusion and despair, her generosity of spirit, her eagerness to share what she’s learned with the rest of us restless, middle-aged seekers. And I am so grateful now that when I first wrote to her, months ago, she answered my letter.  And that when she said, “Come to the beach,” I said I would.  There is not a woman among us who couldn’t use a weekend away, a walk on the shore, a good night’s sleep alone in a bed far from home.  I know I am lucky to have had all those things this weekend, along with the most precious gift of all — time to just be, without one bit of pressure to do.

In the end, I did find what I was looking for, out there on the outer banks:  Hope.  Hope that things will work out for the best. Hope that when the going gets tough, as it always does,  I will remember who am and draw strength from the truth that I already know: love enlarges and sustains us.  Love saves us from ourselves.  Love is pure, positive energy. Love really is all we need.

Joan gave us much this weekend, from a candle-lit lobster dinner in her home, to belly laughs and yoga on the beach.  But I think the words that I treasure most now that I’m home again were not hers, but ones she shared by Robert Frost.  Asked if he had hope for the future, Frost replied:

“Yes.  And even for the past, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was.  Something that I can accept–mistakes made by the self I had to be, or was not able to be.”

I drove away from the Cape last night refreshed and inspired, and bearing this same small hope in the palm of my own hand.  It is time to forgive myself for not being more. Time to love myself, imperfections and all, just as I am.