a bouquet of peonies

IMG_9236I can’t tear myself away from home these days, nor am I getting much of anything done around here. The peonies are in bloom. And I don’t want to miss a moment of their brief, luxuriant season. Most mornings I’m in the garden within minutes of waking, to pay my quiet respects to the outrageously generous display going outside our door . At dusk I wander, scissors in hand, cutting fragrant armfuls to carry inside. For this week only, there are peony bouquets everywhere. Every vase and jar I own is full, the air is thick with the sweet, subtle scent, and still they come, a succession of blooms. I cherish every one.

IMG_9162If you were to drop by my house for a cup of tea and a chat this afternoon, I’d send you home with peonies.

IMG_9231But as it happens, I’m here alone on this June day, typing at my little table on the porch. There’s no need, and no room, for yet another bouquet in the house. And so I offer you, instead, a bouquet in words and photos. Here are my dear peonies and some lines – from poets and gardeners and ancient Chinese haiku artists — that pay them homage. Inhale deeply. Peony season, like life itself, is precious, fleeting. [continue…]

Gracie, 8/20/00 – 11/18/13

IMG_0154Everyone we know who’s ever loved and lost a dog told us the same thing: that she would let us know when it was time to say good-bye. And of course, she did.

Yesterday morning we let Gracie go, with sad hearts but also certain that it was her day to leave us.

Since she was diagnosed with cancer just a month ago, on Oct. 17, Gracie rose to the challenge of treatment just the way she did everything else in her life: willingly, without fuss or fanfare, and with complete trust in her humans to do what was best for her. We took a big swing at it, with three rounds of chemo, and were amazed and thrilled as she gained back weight and strength and her zest for life.

A week ago, she was like her old self — up at dawn, taking long morning walks, playing in the leaves, chasing balls and sticks. (Steve took this photo  last weekend, as Gracie eagerly did her part during fall clean-up at my parents’ house.)

There were no bad days. These past few weeks have been about massages and Reiki and hand-feeding, lots of special, home-cooked food, visits with all her friends, treats and walks and togetherness. We had the great gift of getting her back for a little while, knowing as well that things could turn at any moment. When they did, we took our cues from her. [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.

Summer Reading — Don’t Miss This

The toes in the hammock are a good sign. They mean I’ve remembered, for today anyway, that I already have enough. Enough time to rest, to play, to reconnect with my own idle, dreamy, summer-child self. They mean that, at least for today, I know this: my challenge is not to chase a perfect life, but rather to pause long enough to appreciate a perfect moment. Toes in the hammock mean that, just for today, I am choosing not to be overworked or overwhelmed or overcommitted. Today, some things are going undone. Not all expectations will be met, not all emails will be answered, and dinner will consist of the leftovers in the fridge. Instead of typing words on a screen or staring down a to-do list, or giving more than I can graciously afford to offer, I’m taking a break. I’m lying on my back under a tree, reading a book cover to cover, allowing my heart to fill and overflow with poetry, my soul to be nourished by the words of a kindred spirit.

I ordered Jena Strong’s first collection of poems, Don’t Miss This, a few weeks ago, just as soon as I read my friend Lindsey’s passionately enthusiastic review. Although I am a serial reader of memoir, it’s been a while since I allowed a new poet to enter my life. I’m a loyal re-reader of the poets I love, more likely to return to my handful of old favorites – Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Danna Faulds, Donald Hall, and Stanley Kunitz – than to tune my ear to a new voice, no matter how heralded.

But Jena’s book drew me immediately, in part because it is a memoir in poetry, a collection in which each poem stands fully and beautifully on its own while, at the same time, adding another strand to a story that I can’t imagine being told in any other way. As Jena explains, “The poems here trace a journey – to some extent in real time – through marriage, motherhood, sexual awakening, separation, and healing.”

I was startled, when I opened the book at random the day it arrived and began to read, to find myself in tears. Startled to feel such a powerful connection to this woman whose life path is so different from mine — who is so much younger than I am, and who is in the throes of mothering two small daughters, claiming her sexuality, coming out, and creating new relationships even as she struggles, with great care and compassion, to protect and honor the sanctity of old ones.

This, at a glance, is not the story of my life. And yet, it seemed as if every poem I read revealed to me something that is absolutely the story of my life. And what took my breath away was not the superficial details that separate me from this gifted young poet, but the slow, undeniable revelation of all that connects us: the intensity of emotion, the longing for self-acceptance, the faith that guides our steps and the sense of mystery that astonishes and humbles us as we make our slow, halting way forward. The love for our children, our spouses and partners and friends, and finally, for our own vulnerable, imperfect selves. The sustenance of seeing the sacred in the ordinary, the soul work of cultivating gratitude for a life that is not at all the one that was planned but that is, instead, the one we are meant to live. The courage to share a personal struggle, in the belief that it is only by revealing our cracks and fissures that we grow up spiritually, into our own true selves, at last.

To read this small, exquisitely written book and do it justice, I knew I needed to clear space. I needed to leave my cell phone on the kitchen counter, my work on my desk, the dishes in the sink. I needed to lie in the hammock beneath a vast, all-encompassing summer sky and allow myself the necessary luxury of deep reading. I have taken Jena’s title as a directive: don’t miss this. And so, today has been a first-page to last-page day, a vacation day right in the midst of everything, a gift to myself of time and poetry, beauty and kinship, summer air and chosen silence.

May you clear an essential space in your own life during this final month of summer and sink right down deep into something nourishing and good, something that feeds your soul. Take a chair outside, put your feet up, read a book that gives you back to yourself. Don’t miss this.

>SUMMER READING!

Last week, I gave away copies of Mary Oliver’s Collected Poems, Volumes One & Two. In the spirit of summer reading, and because I so enjoy sharing books I love, I’ve decided to give away a book each week during the month of August.

Jena’s book is available to purchase here. (And her lovely blog,about “waking up, making the coffee, and seeing what happens” is here.)

To be eligible to win a signed copy of Don’t Miss This, just leave a comment below, and tell me what YOU are reading this summer. I’ll draw a winner at random on Tuesday, August 7.

In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to share one of Jena’s poems, one I’ve read every day since the book arrived. (As I said, I am a devoted re-reader of poetry that speaks to me.) And if you’d like to read more about Don’t Miss This, click HERE to read Pamela Hunt Cloyd’s beautifully nuanced review.

What If?

What if you knew
that everything was going to be okay,
that something was in motion
beyond your field of vision,
beyond even the periphery
of your knowing?

What if you knew
that everything you want,
everything you’ve been seeking,
trying to figure out, missing,
is right here, already whole
in your hands, in your life?

What if taking in what is
could satisfy your longing?
What if you could rest your frantic, racing, busy mind
and rest your neglected, tired body,
put your head down in someone’s lap
to have your hair stroked,
like a cat, or a child?

What if you didn’t need to understand
how it works,
but could enjoy the magic
of how love shows itself
in the most unexpected, simplest of gestures?
What if everything is just as it should be?

What if nothing had to be better,
bigger, different, or other?
What would you do then?
Who would you be?

JIMMY FUND MARATHON WALK UPDATE:

My training is underway for my 26.2 mile walk on September 9, in memory of my friend Diane. I’ve taken a few 8-mile walks, am picking up the pace, and am feeling the soles of my feet growing tougher, my legs growing stronger by the day.

To read more about my reasons for making this walk, click HERE.

Click HERE to make a donation on my personal fundraising page.

And to all of you who have already supported me in this effort, my heartfelt thanks!

Walking to remember

Turning the calendar page to August is always a little hard for me. There is no denying that we’re entering the final weeks of summer, that the days are growing shorter, that there’s more dead-heading going on in the garden than new growth, that the sun at twilight seems more fragile somehow, less robust than the relentless blast of July. I begin to mark time: the end of raspberry season, the passing of peaches, the crickets’ first evening symphony, spikes of goldenrod appearing alongside the road.

For me, too, August will forever be remembered as the month when I had to begin saying good-bye to my friend Diane. Two summers ago, as we sat on her patio and drank iced tea and talked for hours, I couldn’t quite imagine the world without her in it.

This, of course, is what grief is all about. We become familiar with the unimaginable and, in the process, we are made profoundly aware of the fragility of our own ordinary days. We learn firsthand that sorrow and loss are part of being human. That hearts can break and then, slowly, begin to mend. That out of deep sadness can come goodness. And, finally, that with each act of kindness and compassion, with each gesture we make in the memory of our loved one, we bring healing not only to ourselves but out into the world as well.

Last September, I completed my first Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk. I walked the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston because I believed it was the best way to honor my dear friend – by carrying forward the work she believed in so passionately.

Diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer at age 51, Diane made two choices: to respond to her disease with aggressive treatment and to fully embrace the simple pleasures of her everyday life. Under the cutting-edge care of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, she was able to do both for nearly four years.

During that time, she also worked tirelessly to support ovarian cancer research, completing three Jimmy Fund walks even while undergoing treatment herself, participating in several clinical trials, and raising thousands of dollars.

As Diane’s husband David recalled, “She was animated by a desire to live for the things that mattered to her most – mothering, friendships, and giving back. She experimented with clinical trials that had very little prospect of advancing her situation, but gave generously to potentially advance the science.”

That was Diane – determined, always, to find meaning and purpose in the time she had, even as her disease chipped away at so much of what she loved. As her own journey came to and end, Diane made another decision. She asked that those who wished to remember her do so by carrying on in her footsteps. More than anything, she hoped that more effective treatments and earlier detection might make other women’s prognoses better than her own.

Team Diane was formed in response to that wish. Walking together last year, this small group of Diane’s close friends raised over $35,000 for her cause.

It was a great achievement, made possible in part by your generous donations to my walk. What touched me most of all last year was the realization that it made no difference at all that most readers of my blog didn’t know Diane personally.

What mattered much more was the fact that there is barely a soul among us whose life has not been touched by cancer. We have all lost someone or supported a loved one through dark hours. And so, far flung as we may be, we do share a common goal and a deep sense of connection. Whether we are called to walk, or to open our hearts and pocketbooks in support of those who walk, we are all partners in this work. And together we DO make a difference.

I am proud to walk again this year. Team Diane has mobilized with renewed commitment — we hope to meet or exceed last year’s total on September 9. Best of all: all monies raised will go directly to Diane’s Fund, established this spring by the Brewster family to support ovarian cancer research under the direction of Diane’s Dana Farber oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis.

This week, I began training in earnest for the 26-mile trek on September 9. As I walk the country roads around my home in New Hampshire, I carry my friend in my heart, knowing that in some way she is accompanying me with every step, urging me on. But this year, I also have a sense of just how vast this network of love and hope and connection really is. I may walk alone, but I know now that I’m also part of something that is bigger, and far more powerful, than any one of us.

If you supported me last year and wish to do so again, I’d be most grateful. And to all of you who are new to this space, please know that there is no pressure here, but rather an invitation to join me in an effort that means a great deal to me personally — and that will surely touch each of our lives at some point. (According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012 alone more than 22,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This deadliest of all gynecologic cancers will claim more than 15,000 lives this year.)

Diane and I shared a love of Mary Oliver’s poetry, and of one poem in particular, “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines, a prescient reminder that life is both fleeting and inexpressibly lovely.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, because I think it would please my friend, I’d love to share our favorite poet with you. If you do donate below, leave a comment and let me know. I will select at random one winner on Wednesday, August 1, to receive Volumes One and Two of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems.

Thanks so much for your support!

Here’s how to help:

**To make a quick and easy tax-deductible contribution to my walk on Sept. 9, CLICK HERE.

**If you prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk, and write “DIANE’S FUND” in the memo line. Then mail it to me, Katrina Kenison, at 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

**Widen the circle by sharing this post with your friends, on your Facebook page, and on Twitter.

To read more about the cutting edge research being carried out by Dr. Matulonis and her team at Dana Farber, CLICK HERE.