Paradise in Plain Sight (and a give-away)

82522Come see the garden,” my new online friend said to me, years ago. We had never met, barely knew each other through the ether, and yet here she was, inviting me to her sanctuary.

I was a New Hampshire housewife contemplating a field of granite rocks beyond my kitchen window. She was a west coast Zen priest, the rightful inheritor of a venerable Japanese garden tucked away in a suburb of LA.

What did we have in common? Perhaps it was something as simple as the belief that an ordinary life is a gift to be reckoned with — that folding socks and driving the carpool and washing supper dishes are opportunities for growth and grace. And we also shared this: a desire to fully inhabit the present moment by learning to pay attention to the ground beneath our own two feet.

It doesn’t sound like much — being quiet, noticing where you are, appreciating what you see, realizing that you already possess what you’ve been looking for because you already are everything you seek.  Of course, this kind of seeing, this kind of unvarnished intimacy with one’s self, is also the task of a lifetime. Hard work. Simple. Not simple. Endless. Worth it.

So, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that we first “met” because our books crossed each other’s doorsteps. [continue…]

Blessings

What happens when we begin to count them? The day becomes a poem, the list a prayer, life itself a gift.

sunrise
flannel sheets
cold water
hot water
peppermint soap
oatmeal
long underwear
iTunes
sturdy legs
running shoes
dogs
silence
online friends
close-by friends
new friends
forever friends
traditions
sons with jobs
nephews and neices
oranges in a bowl
peppermint tea
tech support
hardcover books
1.50 reading glasses
a good haircut
a good husband
cardinals
clouds
stone walls
old trees
pink geraniums
piano music
faith
photos
grandmothers
grown children
little kids
handwritten notes
child pose
new kitchen sponges
Mary Oliver
parents
laughter
magazines
folded towels
matched socks
candlelight
cloth napkins
soup
resilience
forgiveness
footrubs
wrinkle cream
peppermint ice cream
chocolate sauce
sunset
stars
the moon
the sky
space
wonder
the words “good night”
flannel sheets
dreams
breath
today
tomorrow
this
now

Inspired by my friend Maezen

Paperback reflections, thank you, and a free book. . .

I tried, a year ago when my book was published, to see what was ahead.  And of course it soon became obvious that I could see nothing at all.

I was not one of those authors who pops a bottle of champagne the day the first finished copy arrives on the doorstep.  In fact, the opposite.  There had been one mildly positive review in Publishers Weekly, not much else to make the world sit up and take notice, and I was pretty certain that “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” would come and go without leaving so much as a trace.  That, I told myself, was just fine with me. After all, there had been so many times, as I was writing it, that I completely lost confidence in what I was doing.

Why should anyone need three hundred pages anyway, just to work through some rather personal and complicated feelings about mid-life and children growing up and leaving home?  And more to the point, why would anyone feel compelled to read a  memoir in which no one’s marriage falls apart, no deep dark secret is unearthed, no goal is reached, no great epiphany ever achieved?

“What are you writing about?” various friends and acquaintances would ask along the way.  I never did figure out how to answer:  “Um, myself. Getting older. The kids changing. How hard it is to live with them, and how it’s even harder to let them go. Wondering what’s next, what really matters, and, well, how to deal with it all. . .”  Somewhere in there I would trail off, embarrassed by my own lack of a plot.

Not exactly a compelling sales pitch.  Every once in a while, I would send chapters to my mom to read, and ask, “Do you think anyone will be interested in this?”  And she would read, and call me up, and say, “Well, I’m interested, but of course, I know you.”  That was honest, if not exactly encouraging.  Finally, in order to finish, I just had to sit down at my kitchen table and write.  And in order to do that, I had to pretend that no one would ever actually read it.

We were in Maine on vacation, at the very end of last summer and a few weeks before pub date, when, to my  surprise, the first couple of advance reader reviews popped up on amazon.  Apparently, bound page proofs had been sent out to a few hundred serious book bloggers and amazon faithful; now, they were beginning to weigh in.  A friend e-mailed me the news and so, heart pounding, I logged on and typed in my book title.  “Has this woman ever had an unexamined thought?” wondered my first reviewer, a woman who admitted she had lost patience with me within the first couple of chapters.  Unfortunately, I did know the answer to that one.  But the review stung.  It also confirmed my own worst fears.

I took a long, fretful swim that day, and then I took my friend Ann Patchett’s advice:  “Don’t even read the amazon reviews,” she warned.  “There’s not much you can learn from the good ones, and the bad ones will break your heart.  Just write what you are meant to write.  Trust your own voice.”

A few weeks later, when a box of finished copies arrived, I put a couple on the shelf and then got busy making dinner.  Did I want to have a little celebration? my husband asked. “No thanks,” I replied, having already decided to pretend I hadn’t just had a book published.

I had, however, promised my publisher that I would create a web site and start writing a blog; it was the least I could do to help their sales effort along, given how very well they had treated me.  I wasn’t sure that I could come up with something meaningful to say every week, but I was pretty sure that it didn’t matter much; who would ever see it anyway?  My son Henry set me up with a basic template, showed me how to slip in behind the curtain and manage my own content, and I typed up my first blog post on publication day, September 7, 2009.  Hitting “save and close” I felt a bit like a pine toppling in the forest.  If no one is there to watch, does the tree actually fall?

It wasn’t long, though, before the first letter magically appeared in my in-box, an e-mail from a mother of three in California.  “If you lived next door to me,” she wrote, “I know we would be great friends.”  A few hours later, another e-mail arrived, this one from a reader who was halfway through the book and paused to say, “I can’t believe how much we have in common.”

Since that day just over a year ago, I’ve received hundreds of letters from women (and a few men) who have read “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” and then been inspired to visit my web site and write to me.   And each of these letters has taught me something.  One by one, my readers have reminded me that, in fact, our stories do matter.  That a book can make a difference in a life.  And that we humans are strengthened and supported by the simple act of reaching out across time and distance to say:  “I hear you.  I understand.  I’ve felt that, too.”

So here I am, a year later and feeling very much a part of a larger community, all thanks to you — you who are reading these words at this moment.   Different as the details of our days may be, it is so clear to me now that we are bound together by our hopes for our loved ones and our aspirations for ourselves. What we seek, and what we find, as we write and read and share our fears and doubts and dreams with one another, is connection.   Turns out that we are all struggling along, trying to make sense of the way things are and to become the people we are meant to be.  We are all making an effort to be more present in our lives, to love our children just as they are, to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, and to be grateful for every ordinary moment of every ordinary day.

What we know, of course, is the very thing that we continually need to be reminded of: that life is fleeting and precious and beautiful, and that heaven is right here on earth if we will only pause long enough to really look, to really see:  the cup of hot coffee, the tousled head, the wagging tail, the small hand held up in greeting, the curve of a chin, the blinked back tear, the sun, the moon, the stars. . .the very life that we are blessed to live.

I began to write a blog a year ago because someone told me that I should.  But I continue to write because, as it turns out, the forest isn’t empty after all.  It is full of friends and fellow travelers, all of you who are willing to show up, to listen, and to offer compassion and insight and, perhaps, a story of your own in return.   Sitting here, at my same old kitchen table, I no longer feel alone and uncertain of my own voice but, rather, surrounded by soul mates.

Last week, the paperback copies of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” arrived in bookstores.  This time, though, when my own box arrived from the publisher, I didn’t hide them away — because the other thing I’ve learned over the last year is that a story told is at once an invitation and a gift.  When we offer up the truth of the way things really are for us, we invite others to tell their truth in return.  And when we give the gift of our trust–trust that we will be heard and not judged–we receive trust back, in spades.  Those of us who write blogs or read them figure this out pretty quickly:  the learning and caring goes both ways.  Out there in the space beyond our fingertips, out where love is energy, our words to one another are alive and potent, weaving an ethereal, indestructible safety net of compassion and concern.

Today, my dear friend Karen Maezen Miller is giving away a signed copy of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” on HER wonderful blog, Cheerio Road.  Visit her there to win yours.  And in the meantime, thank you, my friend, for being here.

The Shallows

It is August and the goldenrod is in bloom alongside the road.  Last night, I lay in bed, windows opened wide, and listened to the thrum of crickets, a symphonic prelude to summer’s end.  I think back to all the things I was so sure I’d do this summer, to the private to-do list I wrote for myself the first week of June, and realize that I’ve made precious little progress on any of those projects.  What have I been doing all this time?

The fact that I’ve managed to write a weekly blog entry, answer most of my e-mail, read and sometimes comment on the blogs of a few friends and fellow writers, and stay current with my pals on Facebook doesn’t exactly fill me with  a sense of accomplishment.  And yet, I tell myself, I’ve been busy–many days, really, really busy–just trying to keep up with the flow of news and information and communication that shows up on my computer screen each morning.

Over the weekend, Jack and Steve and I visited my parents in Maine.  Cell phone reception is spotty and there is no internet out on the spit of land where their house nestles on ledge, surrounded by water on three sides.  We didn’t do very much — the guys played tennis on a neighbor’s court, we went to the Farmers Market and to the Pancake Breakfast at the library, took walks, read books, cooked and ate and cleaned up.  The three days we spent hanging around the house seemed long and leisurely and lovely.  It occurred to me that, for the first time all summer, it really and truly actually felt like summer.    And then I realized why:  my computer was sitting untouched in a straw bag in the bedroom.  Freed from its siren call, unable to click, tweet, type, or browse, I was forced to give my complete, undistracted attention to the physical world before my eyes and at my fingertips.  Sky.  Water.  Flowers.   Family.  Books.  A pad of paper and a pen. It felt strange, and sort of wonderful to curl up on the couch and write by hand, in different colors of ink, on big sheets of blank paper.  I doodled, sketched, and even created a brand new, A to Z, pie-in-the-sky  to-do list, including everything from “try writing an essay for the Oprah magazine” to “find a birthday gift for John.”   Instead of making me anxious, the process was strangely calming, as if in committing all these random thoughts and ideas to paper I was already moving a step closer toward realizing some of them.

What happened to us this weekend in Maine seemed almost profound — time expanded. Each moment felt fat and full and rich. Meanwhile, something deep inside me relaxed and let go.  The really surprising thing is that, without the ability to so much as check my e-mail, the vague anxiety I’ve had for weeks, about not ever being caught up or on top of things, disappeared altogether.  I read a bound galley I should have read weeks ago and wrote a quote for it (better late than never).  I finally came up with an idea for a new video for the paperback of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” — another task that has had me stumped all summer.  It wasn’t so much that I was actually getting anything “done,” but rather that I could feel myself coming back in touch at last with that small, capricious part of me that observes and imagines and creates from the inside out.

Driving home on Sunday afternoon, we were quiet in the car.  Jack stretched out in the back seat, reading “Slaughterhouse Five,” without his earbuds in.  A rarity.  Steve drove, without the radio on.  I sat beside him, utterly absorbed in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”

Talk about finding the right book at the right time.  If you are sitting in front of your own computer at this moment, reading this blog entry, my guess is that you will be as provoked and disturbed and challenged by this extraordinary book as I am.  I consider myself a thoughtful person — engaged with the world, focused on the things that matter, present in my own life.  I earn my living by writing about being in the moment.  And I do so by sitting in front of my laptop, typing words onto a screen.  Nicholas Carr is making me pause and reflect on what’s really going on here.  His research is unsettling, to say the least.

I have a vivid memory of a specific turning point in the writing of my first book, “Mitten Strings for God,” twelve years ago.  I sat on the floor, surrounded by drafts, stacks and stacks of paper that I had written by hand, typed onto the computer, printed out, and then cut up with scissors and taped together.  The room was a mess.  The pages were scrawled all over with arrows and deletions and pen marks in different colors for different levels of rewrites.  And suddenly, casting my eyes over this chaos, I saw exactly how to put it all together.  It seems like a lifetime ago, an ah-ha experience that I will never repeat no matter how many more books I write. Now, thanks to Nicholas Carr, I understand why.  It’s not simply that I have a different approach to writing now, although I do.  It’s that I have a different brain altogether.  A brain that has been radically changed and shaped by the way I use it day in and day out, interacting with the very machine upon which I type these words.  (It has been years since I wrote longhand, and then typed my work onto the computer. And if you think that small cognitive shift is meaningless, think again.)

The fact that “The Shallows” is not the blockbuster, break-out book of the summer is a surprise to me, for it has certainly rocked my world.  It has shown me, irrefutably, what’s at stake as I go about my own daily online business, how the ingrained habits of my wired life have already changed the way I think, the way I see and interact with the world, my ability to reflect, read deeply,  concentrate, and even — hard as this is to admit — my relationship with myself and the people I love the most.

Week after next, Henry will be done with his summer job, Jack will take a break from his apprenticeship in Boston, and the four of us will spend a week together, as we always do, on a lake in Maine.  A couple of years ago, bowing to pressure from the guests, the owner of the rustic old camp we return to year after year installed wi-fi in the main lodge.  The change was subtle at first.  Fewer people played Scrabble after dinner. The teenagers seemed to lose interest in flirting with one another over the perennially unfinished jigsaw puzzles, and began chatting with friends back home instead.  There was room at the game tables.  The place grew quieter.  The books on the shelves were largely untouched.  The guy who was always looking for a game of Bridge never even got out his deck of cards. Last year, we looked around one night and laughed:  the couches were full of people, all gazing at their laptops.

This year, I’ve decided that my vacation will be a vacation from my computer as well.  Steve, who read “The Shallows” first and then pressed it into my hands, is all for that.  Although we’re long past the stage where we can make such a call for our kids,  I’m hoping that they’ll at least consider taking a break from Facebook and YouTube.  I’m looking forward to a few games of Scrabble after dinner and to evenings that seem to stretch interminably toward bedtime.  For myself, I already have a to-do list:  Read deeply.  Have long talks with my husband and my boys. Listen for loons.  Write in my journal.  Notice everything.  Be amazed by the world.

P.S.  My wise and witty friend Karen Maezen Miller has posted some very thoughtful related reflections about social media in “Death by Twitter,” over at Smartly .  Have a look.  And then, let me know your thoughts:  As we grow ever more accustomed to and dependent on our technology, what to we trade away in return for speed and ease and efficiency? What have we already lost?

Hand Wash Cold

One thing that happens, when you publish a book, is that dedicated, hard-working editors inevitably seek you out, in the hope of procuring an enthusiastic blurb for the back cover of some forthcoming book that is deemed to be similar in theme or appeal to your own.  As New York editor Judith Regan recently admitted, “Blurbs!  Chasing them is agony; getting one is ecstasy.  I’ve written more forelock-tugging, hand-wringing blurb request letters than I can count, which is just as well because I’m sure if I quantified my success rate it would show a sad return on investment.  It’s not that an editor minds writing or sending them – we do it on behalf of books we truly love.  But it’s hard not to sympathize with the successful writer whose mailbox groans with Jiffy bags sent by me and my hopeful peers across New York.”   

Well, my own dented black mailbox has yet to groan.  I am, thankfully, neither famous nor inundated. And, given how generously other authors, friends and strangers both, have read and supported my own work, I feel that I owe a debt in kind.  So when a bound manuscript titled “Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life” arrived on my doorstep a few months ago, I didn’t hesitate to take a look.  For one thing, the blue cover looked a lot like the robin’s egg blue of my own book jacket; the words “ordinary life” were immediately resonant.  I wondered:  should I leap out of my chair to defend my “ordinary” territory, or open my arms to welcome a soul mate?

I began to read.  Page two:  “With only a change in one’s perspective, the most ordinary things take on an inexpressible beauty. When we don’t know, we don’t judge.  And when we don’t judge, we see things in a different light.”

Of course.  I could have written these lines myself.  In fact, I have written them, many times, or some variation thereof.  But I also realized years ago, about half-way through the writing of my own first book,  that I didn’t really have a single thing to say about simplifying, or slowing down, or waking up, or not judging, that someone else hadn’t said already.

And yet, I still needed to put the truth that had been written by others into new words for myself. Needed to learn the same lessons over and over again.  Needed to clear my own pathway to the message I still keep hungering to hear:  Be still.  Look.  Love. Pay attention.  Be grateful.  Be here.  Now.  This is all there is.  And all there is, is enough, more than enough.

Day after day, I forget what I  know.  Day after day, I find myself back in the thick of it, thrashing around in my own emotional bog, reaching for a life line.  But at least, over time, I’ve figured out where to turn for help, have learned how to grab hold and save myself.  The yoga mat.  Prayer.  Meditation.  The books I love.  The friends I trust.  The wide open space of the present moment.

So it was with a breath of relief that I welcomed Karen Maezen Miller into my life and allowed her beautiful words to fill my soul.  Here was a fellow traveler.  Her story, it turned out, could not be more different than mine in its details. Our temperaments? Complete opposites.  But, oh, I could tell right away: we are both peering at the same road map, making our slow stumbling way toward the same place, learning how to savor the journey and to be less hell-bent on the destination. How could we not join hands, share the road,  divvy up the burdens, open our knapsacks, break bread together?

I read her book in one day, yellow highlighter in hand.  Sometimes I had to stop, unable to see words through tears.  Other times, I copied whole paragraphs into my notebook, just to savor her wisdom by allowing it to flow through my own pen.   When I was finished, I sent out tweets and taps through the ether:  Hello, hello.  We haven’t met, but we already know one another.

And there she was, saying hello right back, from the opposite side of the country.  A month later, I walked through Maezen’s front gate and she reached up, plucked a lemon from an abundant tree, and handed it to me. We’ve been deep in some sort of conversation ever since, even if that simply means me hopping over to Cheerio Road to see what’s going on, or her leaving a few words of encouragement at the bottom of on Ordinary Day blog post.

Today, in gratitude for friendship, the bonds of motherhood, the healing power of story, and the twists of fate and circumstance that bring far-flung strangers face-to in Zen gardens,  I offer you this shining passage from Hand Wash Cold, a signed and finished copy of which now sits on my own shelf of cherished  “lifeline” books:

 

Gardens, like children, are forgiving; gardens grow. Love, even clumsy and unrefined, cultivates. Time, unhurried, is never wasted. Plants grow heavenward, strong and true, toward the even and ever-present light.

Right in front of me, in plain sight, I have finally seen what the full sun can do. The sun gives attention, and attention fixes everything. It is up to me to put into practice the larger lesson I’ve been shown.

If I encounter you on my way today, I’ll look at you and say hello.

If the phone rings, I’ll answer. If you send me a message, I’ll respond.

When my husband opens the front door, I’ll stop what I am doing to greet him.

When my daughter comes home from school, I will have nothing to do. We will have no place to run. We will lounge on the floor or linger on the lawn. When she speaks, I will listen, without steering the conversation to a conclusion. If she has a scheme, I’ll go along, and let her pull me off course. We will let the hours lapse and the afternoon drift. When she looks at me, and even when she doesn’t, I will embrace her in the shine of my smile.

Today, for a moment more than I think I can bear, I will give her attention. I will give you attention. I will give this world my complete attention. I will give it the sun.

Chapter 16, Hand Wash Cold