saving Jake —
a mom’s story & a give-away

51w9S21cSJL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Since writing last week about my son Jack’s addiction and first steps in recovery, I’ve been inspired and humbled and deeply moved by the stories so many of you have shared, both here on the website and in private emails. This conversation, still ongoing, is a beautiful, necessary reminder that we are all connected — not only by our struggles but also in our hope for our loved ones and in our compassion for one another’s challenging, complicated journeys.

Our culture is obsessed with perfection – and with hiding our problems. But what a liberating thing it is to realize that our private battles are, in fact, universal. And that they are also our richest opportunities for being able to fully share in both the grief and the joys of others.

And so, in that spirit of compassion, I would like to share with you an intimate, courageous book that made a profound impression on me.

Last May a reader of The Gift of an Ordinary Day wrote to say that my book had been “a balm” to her “roughened mother’s soul.” D’Anne went on to reveal that she’d come to cherish life’s quiet, mundane moments by way of a different path: “My 23-year-old son is three years clean from Oxy and heroin.” [continue…]

Slow Journey

I’ve spent the last three weeks in one place doing one thing. And, although I will leave my mother’s house two days from now with a stack of manuscript pages, I will also leave with a great deal more knowledge about how I get in my own way.

There are people, many of them dear friends of mine, who can’t wait to sit down alone and shape their thoughts and feelings into sentences and paragraphs. I so wish I were one of them. There are some who have learned to trust their creative process, others who entertain a muse, some who simply feel most alive when they are creating. I am not any of these people, either.

For me, writing is a slow, halting journey from experience to thought to written word. It is a wonder I do it at all, given how inefficiently I travel, and how adept I am at coming up with countless more “productive” ways to spend my time. Show me a sink full of dirty dishes to address, or a few emails to answer, or an 8 a.m. yoga class, and all my mental synapses go into flight and alight mode. My house is never cleaner than when I have a deadline, my yoga practice never stronger than when I’m in the middle of a writing project. Here in Florida, in my mom’s back bedroom, flight is not an option. I came all the way down here to sit in a chair and fight my own little battle with myself.

Last week my friend, the extraordinary (and extraordinarily prolific) author Beth Kephart wrote this about the craft of memoir: “We are speaking about how we shape what we have lived, what we have seen. About how we honor what we love and defend what we believe in. Makers of memoir dwell with ideas and language, with themselves. They counter complexity with clarity. They locate a story inside the contradictions of their lives—the false starts and the presumed victories, the epiphanies that rub themselves raw nearly as soon as they are stated.”

Dwelling with myself. That really is my challenge. It is so much easier, so much more tempting, to turn away, to get busy doing something else, to skim along on the surface of my life instead of stopping, sitting still, going inside, and going deep. To write, or to read, about the inner life is to believe that what we think and how we feel matters. To be a friend of memoir is to stake a claim for the significance of the examined life. It is to say that our inner narratives are as important as the activities and achievements, the successes and failures, that fill our days. It is to say that locating the story within the contradictions of our lives is a worthy pursuit.

“We read,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “to remember that we are not alone.” It is also why we write. To remember that we have much to learn from our most difficult conversations with ourselves and with each other. And that in sharing the truth of who we are and how we struggle, we remind another struggling someone that they do not journey alone.

Thanks to all of you who contributed suggestions to the “Wholeheartedness” playlist. Next week my in-house tech support son, Henry, will be home. Together, we’ll compile the list and post it here. Till then, feel free to add your favorite songs. (I’ve been listening to the ones I didn’t know and I have to say, I think we’re on to something: it’s a great list of heart-opening, uplifting music!)

Spirit. And books for you!

Last month, my pal Margaret Roach and I gave away four books each – and in return, you gave us hundreds of thoughtful comments and generated the best reading list we’d seen anywhere. So of course, we thought: Let’s do this again! This time, we’re celebrating the official publication date of Margaret’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There, as well as the new paperback edition of Dani Shapiro’s gorgeous memoir, Devotion. What better way to enjoy the gift of these ordinary days of February than with good books and good friends?

If there’s one thing (actually there are many, but you’ll figure that out!) that our three stories have in common it’s that we all touch on matters spiritual. As writers, as women, as humans, we have each found ourselves longing for something ineffable – call it more feeling, more spirit, more love, more faith in life as it is. And we’ve drawn closer to this “more” in the most ordinary places: the garden, the yoga mat, the kitchen sink, the dinner table.

Reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion, last year, I found myself thinking, “Oh, if only she had written this book sooner, I wouldn’t have had to go to all the effort of writing one myself!” It was an odd notion, for Dani’s spiritual odyssey – from a deeply religious and traditional Jewish childhood to a profoundly transformative exploration of Buddhism and yoga — bears almost no resemblance to my own casually Protestant rural upbringing and midlife floundering.

And yet, again and again, the questions that plagued Dani as she dealt with the early loss of her parents, her infant son’s critical illness, and her nagging self-doubt and anxiety, seemed eerily similar to my own sense of loss and confusion as my children grew into adolescence and I felt the old routines and rituals that had sustained our family life begin to slip away. How could we be so very different, and still have so much in common?

I’m not even sure now who sent the first Facebook message, but, having tread so closely upon one another’s heels through this rocky territory of loss and change and letting go, meeting face to face seemed like a small, yet utterly necessary, leap to make. It wasn’t long before we managed to get ourselves seated across from one another over a couple of lattes, talking as if we’d been friends all our lives.

The last time I saw Dani, I brought her a signed copy of Margaret’s bound galley, eager to connect even more wires and expand our little group. So what if, at first blush, Margaret’s story of leaving the fast-paced world of New York publishing for a solitary life in the country appeared to have little bearing on Dani’s explorations of faith and doubt and motherhood? I was coming to see that, once you peel away the first layer of external circumstance in any of our lives, what’s left, pulsing right below the surface, is practically universal: the yearning for connection, contentment, meaning, and peace.

And perhaps this is the most wonderful thing about reading and writing memoir – private, unknown, and unlikely meetings of the heart and soul occur within the pages of books every single day. Certainly the relationship between author and reader can be as intensely personal, as intimate, as healing, as any in real life. As it turned out, Margaret herself was already a devoted Dani fan. We had all discovered one other in print first, had read each other’s work with a sense of deep and abiding recognition, and had realized, with sighs of relief, that we weren’t alone in our seeking after all.

Spirit. I search for it all the time, everywhere. And then I remember: it’s always right here, right where I am, whenever I pause long enough to really pay attention to the world, whenever I notice what’s already right in front of me. Certainly, I find it expressed in the words of these two extraordinary writers I’ve come to know and love, both in print and in life. What a pleasure it is to introduce them to you, to make our circle even bigger, to invite everyone in.

“Much has already happened, and has formed the shape of our lives as surely as water shapes rock. We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge.”
–from Devotion by Dani Shapiro

“The greater Garden, capital G, perpetually tries to take over the relatively puny one that I have placed in its shadow. It musters forces far greater than a barn full of tools and these two hands. . .will be able to keep at a distance forever. We are small, we are nobody—but when we are out there toiling—turning the compost, harvesting the year’s sweet potatoes, planting only the biggest cloves of the previous garlic crop to continue to improve our own strain—we are also part of something infinite.”
–from And I Shall Have Some Peace There
by Margaret Roach

TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF SIX SETS OF 3 BOOKS EACH, comment here and on Margaret and Dani’s sites. Tell us: Where do you seek and find spirit in your life? If you’re feeling shy, no problem, you can simply say “Count me in!” (But we do love hearing from you, and the more answers to our question, the more interesting the conversation!) Leave a comment on all three sites and you’ll triple your chances of winning our books.

Entries close at midnight Saturday, February 19, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.

Remember: Once you post your entry here, go see Margaret and Dani to triple your chances. And if you’ve been sent over to my site by one of them, Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. If you like what you read, do come back – you can subscribe in the box to the left.

Want the Books Now?

Writing class

Sixteen autumns ago, when my younger son Jack was a baby, I took a writing class in Harvard Square.  Wednesday morning was the high point of my week.  I would riffle through my closet, trying to pull together an outfit that wasn’t stained with spit up and that didn’t shout out “suburban housewife,” the babysitter would arrive, and I would jump into my car and head down Mass Ave., thrilled to have an excuse to buy a new notebook and a nice pen, to be out and about without an infant in a stroller or carried on my back, happy instead to be part of the hustle and bustle of undergraduates and academics in the Square.  I made a point of getting into town early on those fall mornings, so that I could linger over a pot of strong mint tea at Algiers, and put the finishing touches on my piece for the week.  Sometimes, I wrote the whole thing right there in the hour before class, notebook balanced on a teeny, tippy table in the window, scribbling down the events of the hours I had just lived through–waking up before dawn with a toddler in our bed, changing the baby, finding a private moment with my husband, greeting the day.

Our class, held in a dusty first-floor classroom at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, was led by a woman with a weirdly wonderful name:  Mopsy Strange Kennedy, herself something of an ageless, enigmatic Cambridge institution.  With her head of wild red hair, heavily lined eyes, tight boucle sweaters and mini-skirts, she was an unlikely muse.  And yet, she managed to set a tone each week that was some kind of magical amalgam of therapy session, cocktail party, and staged reading.  She gave us provocative assignments (“Write the biography of your hair”), which we were free to do or not, and loads of encouragement.  She found something to like in every piece, and, buoyed aloft by her enthusiasm, even the shyest among us found the courage to read our work aloud.  We were a varied lot of aspiring writers–retirees determined to get their memories down on paper, twenty-somethings in search of themselves, zesty post-menopausal women eager to write new life chapters, and me, a former book editor who had always believed that I was much better at improving a “real” writer’s work than trying to say something of my own.  What we shared was a passionate love of books and prose, and, inspired by Mopsy’s effusive praise, a willingness to be cheerleaders for one another’s humble efforts.

Week after week, for want of a more compelling subject,  I found myself writing about the life I was living in that moment–my first attempt to make jam, the last of the tomatoes in the garden and my bouquet of nasturtiums on the windowsill, my sons, myself.  “You have the perfect life,” a classmate said to me once, over coffee.  Her remark surprised me; perfect it most definitely was not.  And yet, by paying attention to the way things actually were, by caring enough about the ordinary details of my everyday life to write about them, I could see that I was imbuing that life with a kind of grace, or sanctity, that I had never quite appreciated before.  To me, the most compelling subject of all, it seemed, was the present moment.  Could I live it fully?  Could I capture it, perhaps hold onto it, by writing it down?

Yesterday, my mom and I paid a visit to Mopsy’s class.  My mother had found her own writing voice in that room, a few years after I left the class, and had made lasting friendships there at a time of great transition in her life.  “Go take Mopsy’s class,” I’d advised her, and so she did, and began to write about her marriage, her losses, her hopes for the future.  So it was quite a treat, all these years later, to return as honored visitors.  One of my mother’s old classmates (still a loyal attendee after thirteen years!) had invited us to come together, and the timing was perfect.  My mother has an essay she wrote in this month’s edition of The Sun magazine.  I had my new book to bring.  We could return in glory, two published writers.

This time, I left home at 7 am, and drove to Harvard Square from New Hampshire.  And all the way down the highway, I thought about how important that first class had been to me, at a time when I wondered if I had anything at all to say.  What I’d come to realize, sitting alone with my notebook in Algiers, or reading aloud to a group of kind-hearted souls, is that as long as we write what we love, it is worth doing, if only to honor that which is beautiful and precious and fleeting in our lives.  The file folder in my desk drawer from that autumn sixteen years ago holds brief word pictures of my life as it was then, a life that seems so long ago that I can only reach out and touch it by reading those words.  How grateful I am now that I paused then, in the heat of the moment, and wrote something down.