happy reports

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The other morning, I snapped the leash onto Tess’s collar and headed out for a walk. We followed our old route, down the hill from our house, onto the bike path toward town, and home again. Nothing too ambitious, yet this was the first time in two years I’ve taken this particular four-mile walk without feeling pain. It was also the first time since having both of my hips replaced last winter that I felt confident enough in my new hardware, and in my healing, to risk having Tess lunge unexpectedly or pull me off balance. I’m strong enough now to hold onto her, strong enough to hike back up the hill without pausing to catch my breath, strong enough to do the whole loop in under an hour. And so it is that a daily ritual I once took for granted has been transformed into an experience that feels special, one I’m grateful for.

IMG_8921So much of what I’ve struggled with, and written about, over the last couple of years has had to do with loss and grief, what Jack Kornfield so evocatively calls “the storm clouds of the heart.” Sitting alone in a quiet room, finding words that both pay homage to the richness of human experience while also acknowledging how vulnerable I often feel in the face of that experience, has given me a way to come to terms with some of the inevitable challenges of growing older — the illnesses and deaths of dear friends, concern for the struggles of a young adult son, life chapters ending, intimate relationships transforming, elderly parents facing their mortality, a body that’s showing the wear and tear of nearly six decades of hard use.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether “ordinary days” would ever return. Or if in fact the best days were behind me now and my own “ordinary” would forever more be tinged with sadness, a kind of constant, chronic, low-grade grief, like the slight limp I’m learning to live with as result of having one leg that ended up being an eighth of an inch longer than the other.

The answer, it turns out, is no. [continue…]

New York memories

I was up at 6:30 the last two mornings, running in Central Park — the same route I used to follow most mornings before work back in 1987, when I lived in a one-room studio on the upper West Side. Being in my old neighborhood this week felt a bit like time travel — there, as always, were the dogs, cavorting in an an exhilarated frenzy of sociability, their bleary-eyed, solitary owners sipping cups of take-out coffee; there were the serious runners, buff men and lean women in coordinated spandex, speeding by me as I loped along in my t-shirt and yoga pants; there were the bikers, usually in pairs, hunched over their handlebars, slicing through space; there were the old folks, sitting on benches with the Times folded into thirds and breakfasts in brown paper bags.

My feet knew just where to go, each turn giving rise to a view that was at once surprising and utterly familiar. I’ve always loved running in the park, where the early-morning city vibe, coupled with my passion for people-watching, carries me much further than any sense of determination I ever manage to muster on the quiet back roads of New Hampshire. Put me down at the corner of 60th and 5th, just as the city’s waking up, and I can run easily for an hour.

But it’s been nearly twenty-five years since I could call myself a New Yorker, and as the years roll by I find it harder and harder to believe that this really was once my life, this city my home, and that I used to be one of those striving young twenty-somethings making my way and trying to figure out where I fit in the grand scheme of things.

“She’s ambitious,” a senior editor once said, warning my boss, I think, that he should watch his heels, that I might be after his job. The comment stung at the time; I thought of myself as hardworking, eager to please, dedicated and wanting to do well — but not ambitious. That word connoted cold-blooded calculation, a willingness to do anything to get ahead. It made me cringe. A small-town girl with no connections, I’d already concluded that the only way I could survive in the world of New York publishing — and still like myself — was to do it on my own terms.

I knew I wasn’t the smartest young editor in midtown, or the most brilliant manuscript doctor, the best dealmaker, or the most desirable party guest. But I was pretty thrilled to have landed in the big city, pretty thrilled with my job, and I was more than willing to give it my all. At the same time, well, I was determined to be a nice person. I hoped that, in a town that could be tough and a business that was often more about names and numbers and who you knew than about literature, there might be some like-minded souls. Other young people who loved the written word and who felt grateful, as I did, for the opportunity to work with authors to make good books even better and then bring them into the world. Turned out that there were, and we found one another.

I was earning $11,500 a year and just barely managing to get by: an English muffin and a grapefruit half for breakfast, an expense account lunch (those were the days when even a junior editor was expected to be wining and dining somebody between the hours of twelve and two), and a cup of soup for dinner. My good friend Jamie Raab was in the same boat, trying to pay the rent and have a life on an editor’s salary that afforded no extras. One Saturday we agreed that we’d both had it with trying to iron skirts on our kitchenette counters; we went to the hardware store together and treated ourselves to two tiny, apartment-sized ironing boards. I remember this purchase vividly because it seemed, at the time, both an enormous splurge and a significant step into adulthood.

I thought of those years as I ran through the park this week. Looking back, I realize now that the older editor who called me ambitious wasn’t entirely wrong. But what she didn’t know was that my yearnings were not so much for a place at the top as they were for a life that would one day be connected to a place. I didn’t want to succeed in business nearly as much as I wanted to succeed in creating a life that felt like a fit with who I was inside. A life in which I would feel that I was truly at home. I knew even then that New York was an experience, a chapter, an important part of my coming-of-age story. And I also knew that I would never have roots there, that my deepest, truest ambitions would ultimately call me elsewhere — to a husband and children, to a slower pace, a quieter way of being, a connection to nature, solitude, a world far from the fast lane.

The wonderful thing is that the very path that led me away from New York all those years ago has now, in middle-age, circled round and brought me back there as a regular visitor. My dear friend Jamie, who counted pennies with me back in the early ‘80s and who set the standard for decency and kindness and intelligence in publishing, stayed the course and is now running Grand Central Publishing, publisher of The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If there is such a thing as a publishing family, Jamie has created it, and I am a lucky relative. Yesterday morning, I had breakfast with my editor, who has also become a dear friend in the years since we first talked about motherhood, the passage of time, and the joys and sorrows of children growing up and leaving home. Karen and I are exactly the same age. Our sons are the same ages. And our lives, which seem at first glance so very different (she represents, most certainly, the road not taken) turn out to be, in the ways that really count, remarkably similar. I may not be attending editorial meetings, doing deals, or racing for a train; she’s certainly not shooing turkeys out of the yard, facing a blank page, or taking long walks at dawn with her dog. But we understand and empathize deeply with the challenges of one another’s days and, what’s more, we share the even more visceral challenges of age, empty nests, grown sons, shifting expectations and new priorities.

It is a stint as a literature panelist that brings me to New York every few months now. What’s different of course is that I come as a visitor, often accompanied by Steve and a son or two; I do my work, savor all the city has to offer, and leave again. It is a wonderful opportunity, to move so easily after all these years between two worlds, to renew an old love affair with the city without questioning for a moment choices made or paths followed. New York has never looked better. I cherish every high-intensity moment that I spend there, and then I sigh with pleasure as I walk back through my own door — exhausted, sated, full of images and impressions and ideas, grateful to have gone, grateful to be home again, grateful to have a life that allows for such contrasts.

“I am rooted,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “but I flow.” Yes, I think, that is exactly right.

Parents Day

You’d think I would be used to it by now, the simple fact that my children have grown up.  Yet time after time the bittersweet truth hits me again, in some new and unexpected way.  A memory surfaces, vivid and fresh as this morning’s sunrise–Henry at twelve, wearing a too-big Hawaiin shirt and a pair of cool sunglasses, playing Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” on the piano; or Jack, fourteen and all intensity and focus, as he reaches down to turn up his amp for a guitar solo on “Autumn Leaves.”  And in a flash my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells up, as I realize how far we’ve already traveled from those moments. Life rushes forward. Except for those rare and precious circumstances when it affords us, instead, the poignant pleasure of circling back — back to a place we’ve been before, a place that’s stayed the same even while we ourselves have changed and grown and moved on.

Nine years ago Saturday, Steve and Jack and I drove into the woods of western Maine for our first Parents Day at Camp Encore/Coda.  We took our seats in the dimness of an old post-and-beam barn on the shores of a quiet pond, and watched our son Henry play jazz keyboards for the first time in his life.  The song was Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”  He took a little solo, glanced out to where we sat in the audience, and flashed us a grin.

Music camp had been my idea, not his. Three weeks earlier, we’d delivered our boy into the hands of a couple of friendly college students, who promised him a fine time in Starfish cabin.  And then we hugged him good-bye and left him there, shy and frightened, with a nervous stomach ache and a black trunk full of carefully labeled shorts and tee-shirts, pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for letters home, bug spray and sweatshirts and music books.  As we pulled out onto the dirt road beyond the parking lot, I realized that my own stomach felt kind of queasy.  And I wondered if, in my desire to expand our son’s world and build his confidence, I’d perhaps pushed a little too hard and a little too soon.  It wasn’t until we returned and saw him standing on the corner of the Old Music Hall stage, holding his own in a jazz band comprised of a bunch of other eleven-year-old kids, a look of pure joy on his face, that I knew for sure:  painful as it had been to insist that our boy leave home for the first time in his life, the journey now belonged to him.

Jump forward nine years.  It is Saturday, and I am in the audience at Parent’s Day again.  My son is a senior counselor, with piano students of his own to teach, a jazz workshop to lead, concerts to perform and camp musicals to play.  The memories come rushing back as I sit in the old barn — all the years we have returned to this camp that both of our sons came, in their own turn, to love.  All the times we’ve gone through the very same ritual, arriving at the gate early on a mid-summer morning, parking the car in a freshly mown field,  following the signs into camp, eyes peeled for one of our boys.  How strange, and perfectly wonderful it always was, to sit in a shed in the deep woods of Maine, listening to children and teenagers and adults all making music together.  A handful of young string musicians performing the Brandenburg concertos with exquisite nuance.  A group of kids in shorts and t-shirts, intently focused on their conductor as they sing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”  in pure six-part harmony. A big band comprised of musicians whose average age is fourteen, swinging through intricate jazz arrangements with the panache and creativity of pros.

It’s been four years since Henry’s last sumer here, when he spent seven weeks working his tail off as a CIT.  Three years since Jack played lead guitar in the Zappa Rock Band. Camp vanished all too quickly in life’s rearview mirror, another part of childhood that had been lived and loved and left behind.  And so, part of what gives rise to so much emotion on this particular morning is my own sharp awareness of time passing. It is not exactly jealousy I feel, as I watch a new generation of parents greeting their children, exclaiming over summer tans, growth spurts, and shaggy hair.  I had my turn.  And yet I am overcome, as I walk up the familiar path and hear the sound of a solitary violin being tuned in a practice cabin, both with gratitude for this unexpected homecoming and, at the same time, with a profound, heart-breaking sense of how much is already over.

My challenge now — as it seems to be every day this summer — is to release my hold on what was, so that I can be grateful and at peace with what is.  How well I remember the acute, visceral joy of these reunions.  But there is a different joy awaiting me here now, if I can only allow myself to feel it.  Not the joy of bringing a much-missed child home at the end of the weekend, but rather the joy of being a mother who has done her job, and is now being offered an opportunity to catch a glimpse of her grown-up son doing his.

 

 

Spring break

Every year since our sons were very young, our family has come to Florida for a week of visits with the grandparents and a welcome respite from the back side of winter.

Yesterday morning, we stepped out our back door at 4:30 am, into a torrent of freezing rain, gusting wind, slush.  In darkness, eyes still sleep-sandy, we made our way along the empty, icy roads to the airport — bright lights, security lines, hot Starbucks coffee.

As always, the contrasts of the day astonished me.  It is surreal, to wake up in one familiar place and go to sleep hours later in another.  My parents’ airy, modern home  on a densely populated saltwater canal couldn’t be more different than our own rustic wooden house in New Hampshire.  In the course of one day we exchange dirty snow and still-bare trees for lush green lawn, bougainvillea, and rustling palms; fleeces and boots and gloves for shorts and sunglasses and bare feet.  Drum fish commence their percussive mating call in the water beyond the open bedroom windows, the temperature is a mild sixty-eight degrees, the kitchen fruit bowl overflows with strawberries, avocados, cantaloupe.

There isn’t much to do here — no beach nearby, no cool sights to see or touristy events to attend.  When the boys were little we would treat them to a Little Rascals video, go out for a pancake breaksfast, set up coloring books outdoors, play games of Clue.  A trip to the Dairy Queen or a round of miniature golf might be the focus of the day.  Yet, year after year, we’ve come back, to do pretty much the same things we did the year before — spending a few days with Steve’s parents three hours north of my folks, visiting my aunt and uncle, relaxing with my mom.  Meanwhile, our sons grew up.  Over time, Netflix movies replaced the Little Rascals, video games edged out board games (though Scrabble and Bananagrams have brought us back together around the table), laptops have taken the place of coloring books and crayons. Pancakes and Dairy Queen are still part of the agenda, though they don’t elicit the excitement they once did.

Waking up this morning on the fold-out couch in the den, to the smell of fresh coffee and the low coo of mourning doves,  I was overcome with a sense of the long, slow passage of time.  How much has changed in our lives, even as this one annual ritual has held.  The privilege of being both mother and daughter in this house will come to an end, I know.  The day will arrive when our boys will no longer choose a visit to grandma as a spring-break destination.  My parents, in their seventies, cannot be our hosts forever. There are plenty more changes in store.

And so I am grateful for every morning that we find ourselves here, in any family combination, waking to birdsong and the sound of my mom making coffee in the kitchen.  In recent years, Steve’s father has passed away, and his mother has declined into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.  My aunt, sick for several years, passed in December.  Our sons, at different schools, have different vacation schedules now, without even a single day of overlap.  The family vacation of old has been transformed this year into a new, staggered arrangement of comings and goings.  Everyone will get here, but not at the same time.  This week, Jack is with us.  Henry will arrive for his own spring break soon after his dad and brother head back north.  For a few days in between boys’ visits,  my mom and I will be all alone together — rarely possible when my two sons were both at home, but a special perk of this new life chapter.

Slowly, I’m learning to accept — no, appreciate — the possibilities of our new reality.  Needed less by my own children these days, I am free to create new, closer relationships with my parents.  At seventeen, the age my son Jack is now, I considered an evening spent home alone with my mom and dad as some kind of social failure on my part.  Now, at fifty-one, it is a rare treat.

Last summer, my feelings were often bruised by the sight of my son pacing the house, cell phone pressed to his ear, trying to make a plan, any plan, that would get him out of the house for the night.  What I should have remembered, of course, is that life is transformation.  The present moment is always in the process of becoming something else, just as our children are always growing and changing, becoming fuller expressions of themselves.  They flee our presence as if pre-programmed to do so, and then they return, in time, by their own volition.  Tonight, the old cribbage board has been taken out of the closet.  As I sit here typing, Jack and Steve are side by side on the couch, shuffling cards, laughing, relaxed, talking in their own peculiar shorthand.  We are three generations here under one roof, not quite a complete family, but content with one another’s company.  Sort of like old times, but different.

 

Eating alone

I am in New York City for two nights, doing a bit of literary volunteer work.  Today has been a long day, nine hours in a hotel conference room.  By the time our group is released from duty just before six, I’m ready to get outside and seize the last minutes of sunlight on the first day of the year that truly feels like spring.

I walk twenty blocks or so with my coat flapping open, cell phone pressed to my ear like a native, checking in with every family member.  Then I slip my phone into my pocket and watch Times Square grow even brighter as night falls, a vast neon panorama of news and temptation and blandishment.  For a while, it’s fun just to be swept along by the tide of humanity, gazing into shop windows and considering my options.

Not knowing how long my meeting would run, or how tired I’d be after trying to be articulate all day, I haven’t made a plan for the evening.  But now, watching the world go by — families, couples, groups of friends — I feel a little unmoored, wishing for company.  I think about going to a show, scoring a last-minute ticket at the half-price booth, but I’ve been sitting for hours; actually, dinner and bed sound even more appealing.  Time was, I would have given anything to even have such a choice.  Now I wonder if I’m settling for too little, behaving like a boring, middle-aged mother cut adrift, when I should be taking advantage of some big-city experience.

Twenty-five years ago, I was an editor in New York, young and ambitious and poor, putting a life together for myself on a salary of $11,000 a year.  One day during my first few months in the city, my boss paused at my desk around lunch time and asked what I was doing.  “Reading a manuscript,” I said, through a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich.

“I don’t want to see you here, eating in the office,” he admonished, surprising me.  “Your job is to get out there, meet people, and hustle.  The best stuff always happens at lunch.”   In those days, even junior editors had expense accounts, but until Cork Smith gave me a little kick in the butt and told me to pick up the phone and start using mine, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

As it turned out, my publishing lunches kept me from starving.  Knowing I would get a decent meal at noon, which would cost the equivalent of my own food budget for an entire week, I could subsist on a grapefruit and English muffin for breakfast, and a small salad from the Korean grocer on the corner for dinner.  Once a day, I stuffed myself.  If I was careful, I could just manage to pay my bills.

“You certainly eat a lot, for such a small person,” I recall one elderly literary agent observing. No doubt I nodded, demure, not telling her that my next proper meal was twenty-four hours away.

I think of those days now, as I sit down to a solitary Saturday night dinner in a French bistro in midtown Manhattan.  In a year of stepping out of the comfort zone and learning to say “yes,” this is another little first for me: a restaurant meal without the easy company of a spouse or child or friend along to split an entree, make conversation, share the moment, pay the tip.   I have a magazine in my purse, but it’s too dim in the restaurant for reading — no chance of hiding out after all.  The waiter whisks away the other place setting at the table, hands me a menu, and I’m on my own.  I take a quick survey, relieved to spot a middle-aged man nursing a glass of red wine, a single woman at a banquette against the wall, my compatriots in solitude.

The memories of my long-ago weekends in New York are still fresh.  I’d put my sneakers on and walk the city for hours, soaking it in — smells, sounds, images and glimpses of how other people lived. The bustling restaurants and alluring boutiques were way off limits — the Sunday Times was my one big indulgence.  I often wondered what being truly “grown up” would feel like, whether I would ever be one of those casual, perfectly turned out women with the right sunglasses, jacket, and shoes.  Whether I would ever wander into a sidewalk cafe for Sunday brunch, without a thought for how deeply those scrambled eggs would dent my paycheck.  At twenty-five, I was working hard to fake it till I made it, a New Hampshire girl with a passion for books, a mostly empty Rolodex, and a miniscule alcove of an apartment on West 83rd — an address that surprised me every time I wrote it out.

Now, twenty-six years later, I confront the truth:  I will never have the right shoes.   And the “right” sunglasses these days — oversized, bug-like — would look ridiculous on me.  But I also realize that it doesn’t matter much anymore.  One good thing about turning fifty is the realization that we don’t have to impress anybody. No one cares what kind of shoes I wear.

Still, there is a part of me that feels a little exposed and uncomfortable here, claiming a valuable piece of New York real estate — a restaurant table — all to myself.  I order a glass of white wine, and look around. Turns out that the other two solitary diners aren’t alone after all — a delicately beautiful red-haired woman has joined the man, full of apology for her tardiness, and the lone woman’s husband has returned from the restroom. I am the only unaccompanied person in the room.

“We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available,” writes Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Han. “We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”

All of a sudden, it occurs to me that at twenty-five, much as I would have liked a date, I also would have been quite thrilled to eat a restaurant meal alone.  How grateful I would have been back then, to be able to just enjoy my food, without having to act like I knew what I was talking about, or feign interest in some unsaleable first novel.  And so, in an instant, I make a decision:  I will eat this particular meal in a way that allows me to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.   I’m here, I’m alone, and I am going to fully experience the experience. My salad arrives, and I savor every bite of lettuce and warm goat cheese.  I smile at the waiter, observe my fellow diners, take in the convivial atmosphere, the clatter of silverware, the low din of voices, the exuberance of the two artfully dressed young French women seated next to me, tucking into their steak frites.  I linger over a dish of mussels, with undistracted appreciation.  Happiness, it turns out, is available after all. It was right here all along. By the time dessert arrives (I never order dessert!), I no longer feel alone, but intimately, joyfully connected.  Alive in the moment, grateful for what is, full and content and ready for the long walk back to my hotel.  Tomorrow at this time, I will be back at home in my own kitchen, making a meal, setting the table.  Tonight, though, I am dining alone, and glad to be here.