best books for mindful parents
— and a give-away

 

FullSizeRenderTwenty-five years ago, as a new mother trying to figure out what kind of mom I wanted to be, I went in search of books to guide me. I hoped to find some wise mothering mentors who could shine a light on the path at my feet and say, “Here, follow me, come this way.”

Looking back on those days now, I realize how much things have changed. Back then, there were no cell phones, the word “text” referred to print on a paper page, and news of the world arrived via the newspaper that landed on our doorstep each morning.

We bought our first computer in 1990, when Henry was three months old, so I could begin working from home at my new job editing The Best American Short Stories. My Apple IICX could run two programs at once, Clarisworks and Filemaker Pro, which meant I could do word-processing (an outdated phrase if every there was!) and keep a database of my two hundred-plus magazine subscriptions. I dialed in for an internet connection, kept all my reading notes on file cards, and corresponded with authors and friends through the mail.

There were no blogs to read or online parenting forums to join, there was no Amazon to browse nor any algorithm recommending books for me to buy, there was no Facebook. My husband took photos of our new baby boy with his 3-pound Nikon, we dropped the rolls of film off at CVS, and then carefully placed our 4 x 6 prints into a photo album, sending dupes off to the grandparents.

It all seems pretty quaint in retrospect, so innocent and simple. But at the time, working and raising children and trying to do it all and have it all and give it all to them, I still sensed that life was moving too fast. Much as I yearned for less pressure and more fun, my days were spent juggling: too much stuff, too many choices, too many obligations, never enough time. [continue…]

Summer afternoon

June afternoon in Katrina Kenison's garden Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”           Henry James

I took a long walk yesterday, listening on my headphones to poet David Whyte talking about “What to Remember When Waking.”

I confess:  I was two miles down the road and completely under the spell of  Whyte’s romantic English accent before it even occurred to me that he is not referring to waking up literally, as in what to remember as you roll out of bed in the morning, but rather to waking up in a spiritual sense.  In other words, waking up to your life.

Suddenly, in the heat of the day, trudging back up the hill toward home and dripping with sweat, I got it. [continue…]

Inhabiting a moment

bed at dusk“Everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes.” — James Salter, “The Art of Fiction No. 133,” The Paris Review

On the bed where I sit cross-legged, leaning against the headboard: eyeglasses, a couple of paperbacks, a new but already much loved hardcover novel, half-read, its pages folded over, the margins scattered with lightly penciled exclamations, each one a silent, emphatic yes. Two pens, gray and black, a notebook with a dark brown cover and magnetic clasp. A pile of down pillows pushed aside, the familiar quilt, softened by age and use, sun-faded. The folded comforter.

Beyond the tall triptych of windows, the view that is the backdrop of all my days and nights. Sloping fields still patched with snow, the stone walls that define our edges here, meandering tendrils of wood smoke curling skyward, the final exhalations of a slow-burning brush pile. The maple tree that’s almost close enough to touch, its dark limbs silhouetted against a twilight sky: rose, transparent blue, violet and gold. The fading palette of an April dusk. Tiny, tight-fisted buds where just yesterday there were none.

A platoon of robins that descends as if summoned to the yard. They work away at the newly bared patches of earth, eyes cocked like surveyors taking measure of the land. The mushy, receding snow. The flat, matted grass. A lone yellow crocus still clenched shut, withholding its bloom. The distant mountains drenched for one singular instant in the day’s last light, already slipping into shadow as the sky drains of color. The ticking clock on the bedside table. The quiet way evening settles in.

One son on his way tonight to New York City — hopeful, off to answer a call, a long-shot opportunity to take one small step closer to his Broadway dream. The odds aren’t good. He knows that but goes anyway. This is what it is be twenty-three and wishing for something, anything, to happen — you say yes and figure out the details later. The brief heart-tug when he left an hour ago, fresh shaven, clothes shoved into a pack, one eye on the clock, car keys jangling in his hand. Imagining him tomorrow morning at ten, climbing the stairs of some building in Times Square, giving his name at the door, slipping into a much-coveted seat at a pre-Broadway workshop where, just maybe, he can convince somebody he’d be a useful guy to have around.

From the kitchen below, the muffled sound of a Celtics game on TV. The rise and fall of my younger son’s voice and his dad’s responses, their staccato, companionable conversation punctuated by alternating cheers and cries of despair. The pleasurable stillness of the house in the hour after dinner when the dishes are done. The slow, unwinding hours before bed. The sense of embrace.

All week, I’ve been thinking about the line quoted above, Salter’s idea that “everything that is not written down disappears, except for certain imperishable moments.” By imperishable, I assume he means the big ones – the birth of a child, a phone call bringing good tidings or bad news, a vow spoken, a declaration of love, of betrayal. We don’t need to preserve those moments that instantly engrave themselves upon our hearts; for better and for worse they become part of who we are, our own unwritten enduring history.

But everyday life — the life we fumble through and take for granted and get distracted by – this ordinary life is comprised of little else but perishable moments, random strings of details, most of them barely worthy of our notice: the slant of sun across the breakfast table, the coffee steaming in the mug, the brush of a hand across a brow, the dog’s head in your lap, a son’s casual, quick embrace, a handful of stars flung across a vast night sky, few notes worked out on the piano. The flotsam and jetsam that add up to days lived, days forgotten.

It takes a kind of determined willingness to pay attention, an eye deliberately refreshed and attuned to nuance. And it takes time, time I rarely spare of late, to pause long enough to truly see. To sit in silence and slowly, haltingly, put what is fleeting and ephemeral into words. The inescapable truth of the present moment: it’s already gone by the time I manage to set it down upon a page.

And yet, I do believe there’s something to be said for trying. Something to be said for inhabiting stillness and then looking out at everything as if for the first time. For me, it is always the same lesson, one I learn by lingering in one place for a while and softening my gaze. Making myself at home in the moment means allowing time and space for each thing to become wholly itself, distinct and beautiful in its own way, each bearing its own secret revelation.

What I’m noticing as I sit in bed this evening and take stock of the fading, golden light, the muffled sounds of home, the unimportant particulars of here and now, is this: the simple act of recalibrating my attention calls me back into relationship with my life.

Perhaps a day will come when I will be grateful even for this humble record, this snapshot of an unremarkable time. I still believe with all my heart in the gift of an ordinary day. But I also have to remind myself, again and again, to accept that gift for what it is: proof that every moment offers another quiet opportunity to be amazed.

So, why not try this? Close your eyes. Draw a deep breath in and then exhale a long, deep breath out. Step gently through the opening, into now. Allow your eyes to open quietly, as if you are drawing back, a curtain. See whatever is at hand. This is where you are. Before the moment sheds its skin and assumes a new shape, weave a skein of words around it. Take a picture. Say “thank you” out loud and feel the texture of those words on your tongue. See how the very act of noticing is something akin to wonder.

A Birthday About Giving Back: The Gifts are for YOU

It’s the one part of the publishing process that I truly dread: sending my unedited, ink-just-barely-dry-on-the-page manuscript out into the world. Well, not quite into the world, but to a small handful of fellow writers, in the hope that a couple of them will agree not only to read it, but to also say something kind enough to be emblazoned across a book jacket.

Having been on both sides of the advance-blurb hustle, I know it can be just as awkward to be asked to read an unpublished manuscript as it is to be the hapless author down on one knee, apologizing in advance for having to make such a request.

So there I was two weeks ago, staring at a list of my dearest literary friends, steeling my myself to ask a few of them if they might be willing to set aside their own work in order to look at mine, when suddenly, a vaguely familiar name popped up in my e-mail box. I recognized Priscilla Warner as the author of Learning to Breathe, a best-selling memoir that, oh, at least five or six trustworthy people over the course of the last year had told me that I absolutely “must read.” “You two have so much in common,” one friend insisted. “You will really love this woman; you’re kindred spirits.”

I was definitely curious. But at the time I was also enmeshed in a daily struggle to write my own memoir. And the last thing I could afford to do was derail my halting, sporadic progress by taking a detour into someone else’s account of a midlife search for peace and equanimity. Now, out of the blue, here was Priscilla herself, writing a comment on my blog post about my son Henry’s college graduation. “Thank you for opening your heart,” she wrote, “and showing me what’s in mine.”

I read Priscilla’s beautiful words, immediately ordered her book at long last, and then wrote her back to let her know. It was a quiet early morning, and the two of us both happened to be sitting at our computers. Within moments the e-mails were flying back and forth. And it wasn’t long before we were hatching a plan to meet in person later this summer.

“But,” as Priscilla wrote, “our souls have already connected.” It was true. She was a perfect stranger, and yet within the space of an hour we had become fast friends. I felt as if I could tell her anything; no, I didn’t even have to. It was as if she already knew.

As we shared more of our stories – the challenges of children growing up and leaving home, the questions that haunt us both as old identities fall away and new ones are slow to take shape, the nostalgia we both feel for moments lived and the uncertainty about what lies ahead – it became clear that the universe had just handed both of us a pretty amazing gift: each other.

And suddenly, what had been an embarrassing chore on my to-do list an hour before was transformed into something else altogether – an opportunity to deepen our connection. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to ask Priscilla if she’d be willing to read my manuscript. And her swift response — “Yes, yes, yes. I need it immediately!” – swept away the queasy sense of dread I’d been feeling all morning.

Last week, my son Jack had surgery for a deviated septum. An emergency at the hospital meant that an out-patient procedure meant to take about four hours kept us there for over eight instead. It wasn’t all that comfortable for Jack, laid out in a narrow bed with an IV in his arm, waiting for the surgeon to show up. But I have to confess, I didn’t mind the wait at all. In fact, it felt like a luxury; I had Priscilla’s funny, courageous, exquisitely written book in my hands, and a whole day to sit in a chair and read it.

It wasn’t long before I found myself scribbling notes on the back cover, keeping a list of all the small yet truly remarkable coincidences that made me feel even more certain that destiny had caused our paths to cross at precisely the right moment. (“Shivers,” I texted her once, from my seat in the waiting room. “Shivers, indeed!” she typed back.)

A few years ago, after a lifetime of anxiety and panic attacks, Priscilla set out to meet her demons head on. Her year-long quest “to bring calm to my life,” as she says in her subtitle, led her far from her comfort zone and into experiences and encounters that changed not only her brain chemistry but her entire outlook on life. Slowly, her racing heart quieted. It grew lighter, more tender, buoyed by faith and enlarged by compassion. By the end of my long day of reading, I had wept and laughed and discovered much about our human capacity for change and growth, no matter how old we are or how complex our histories may be.

I put the book down every once in a while, but only to practice what I was learning in its pages: to breathe more deeply and with more awareness, to be grateful for what is, to honor the great luxury that is life itself.

By the time the doctor finally arrived to tell me Jack was coming out of anesthesia, I felt that my own heart had grown a bit, too. I went in and kissed my son’s dear, swollen face. When the nurses apologized for the long delay, I assured them that I’d had a wonderful day. And I had, thanks to an extraordinary book by an extraordinary woman. I couldn’t wait to get home and write her a proper note, to thank her for sharing her life with me, both on the page and through the ether.

Given the generosity of Priscilla’s spirit, it didn’t surprise me at all to receive an invitation to her Blog Birthday Party – a party she’s throwing right here online, and that is all about giving rather than receiving. That’s right, the gifts are from her to you!

To celebrate her 59th birthday, Priscilla is hosting a birthday giveaway on her blog, and the presents are some of her favorite things, talismans from her journey from panic to peace: one of her Buddha bracelets, a beautiful Tibetan singing bowl, her favorite candle, some Nirvana Belgian chocolate, and a CD by Belleruth Naparstek (her guided imagery guru).

And there are more gifts, too, from some of Priscilla’s blogging friends to all of our readers. (We really want you all to meet one another!). So, in the spirit of the day, and to celebrate this wonderful new friendship in my life, I am offering two signed copies of Learning to Breathe right here on my site, along with two signed copies of my book The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

Here’s what you do:
1. Leave a comment here, to be eligible to win Learning to Breathe along with The Gift of an Ordinary Day. (Two winners will be drawn at random after midnight on Sunday, July 1.)

2. Then click to Priscilla’s blog and wish her a happy birthday, to be eligible to win any of the lovely gifts described above.

3. And then pay a visit to all the other party guests (see the links over at Priscilla’s place), and leave comments in order to win gifts they are each offering as well.

Lots of new friends to be made here, special presents from a special person, wonderful books to read and to give, and a joyous celebration of another year of life and love.

Happy Birthday to you, Priscilla, and thank you my friend for hosting such a glorious event! May all your birthday wishes come true!

Berries

As a child, I lived next door to an elderly couple who spent their golden years cultivating gorgeous roses, raising chickens, growing strawberries, and nurturing a special friendship with my little brother and me.

Each year, the last day of school seemed to magically coincide with the beginning of strawberry season. For every two quarts we picked for Dike to sell for fifty cents from his side porch, we were allowed to take one home for ourselves, which seemed to my brother and me like gainful summer employment. Once we’d picked our quota, we were rewarded by the pleasure of returning to the shady swing set in our own back yard, payment in hand: a soggy, juice-stained balsa-wood box tip-top full of warm, sweet berries.

By the time I grew up and had children myself, Dike and his wife had died and his lovingly tended strawberry fields had long since been subdivided into condominiums. It wasn’t until twelve years ago, when I found myself alone in a rented cabin with my own two little boys, that I rediscovered the joy of berry picking.

I had rented the place on a whim, over the phone and sight unseen, envisioning swims in the lake, games of Old Maid on the screened porch, hot dogs cooked on sticks over a fire. I wanted time alone with Henry and Jack, away from the easy comforts of home and the distractions of our suburban neighborhood. Ever since my own parents had rented a small rustic cabin on the shore of Lake Winnepesaukee when I was a little girl, I’d been in love with cottage life. Some of my fondest childhood memories coalesce around that first passion and that unadorned place: the scent of pine, carried on a breeze through an open window; the slap of lake water on my face just moments after waking up in the morning; hours whiled away on a lumpy daybed on a screened porch, reading The Borrowers from cover to cover. I was hoping my sons would love what I had loved as a child, that they too would be enchanted by old books and whole days spent in damp bathing suits.

But this was June in Maine. And my sons were used to a little more structure than I had in mind. The cabin was remote; the lake water, inky black and freezing cold. We read for a while, huddled in blankets by the woodstove. They laid out a game of Strat-o-matic on the kitchen table. There were ants everywhere, and so we came up with ingenious ways to protect our food supply. By the morning of the third day, I was wondering what on earth we would do with ourselves for an entire week.

“Let’s go exploring,” I suggested after breakfast, hustling the kids into the car. “Let’s just go home,” Jack, who was seven, replied.

Strawberries saved us. Driving down the country road toward town, I spotted a sign: U-Pick. We pulled over, and within minutes the three of us were plopped down in the middle of a gloriously abundant row, the sun warm at our backs, the long, empty day salvaged by a new sense of purpose. My children, having come of age eating agribusiness berries, industrially grown and shipped to our grocery store from afar, were amazed. Who knew that a strawberry could taste so good?

We picked three heaping flats that morning and feasted on strawberry shortcake with freshly whipped cream, and hot chocolate, for dinner that night. In my memory, we ate strawberries and chocolate at every meal that week. We slept together in one bed to stay warm and never did go swimming even once, though I nearly drowned us all when a sudden, violent storm swept our tipsy canoe all the way across the lake and I found myself utterly unable to paddle against the wind back to shore. (Later, Henry managed to eke three school essays out of that near disaster, one of which he entitled, “The Worst Moment of my Life.”)

My sons are grown now, our week in that isolated cabin just another bit of childhood nostalgia – though a memory my sons, amazingly enough, seem to cherish just as much as I do my own youthful recollections of endless cabin afternoons and quiet pleasures. In recent years, we created a new berry-picking tradition here in New Hampshire at a nearby farm that opens its fields to the public for as long as the crop lasts. Steve and I could usually coerce our teenaged boys to put in a couple of hours of picking on a Saturday morning, as long as there was a promise of shortcake for dinner. The effort was always worth it, more than worth it, and any initial grumbling would soon give way to the elemental satisfaction of harvesting sweet perfection. Who could possibly be grumpy while picking strawberries on a glorious morning in June?

This year, though, it was just two of us on our knees in the strawberry field. Henry is already gone for the summer, ensconced in his first post-college job, playing piano at a musical theatre on the Cape. Jack, who graduated from high school last week, is sharing an apartment in Cambridge for the summer, working at the studio where he’s been an intern for the last two years. He’ll come and go from home, but his sense of where he belongs now is shifting; slowly, over the last couple of weeks, he’s been moving stuff out of here to there: his guitar, his speakers, a set of dresser drawers.

And so, carrying on our old tradition but in a new way, Steve and I got up early yesterday and headed to the farm. We played Cat Stevens on the car stereo and planned out the rest of the day – a few hours of hulling and slicing, the French Open finals on TV, an afternoon in the garden, omelets for dinner, and, of course, strawberry shortcake for dessert. I thought about how grateful I am to have a partner with whom to share the doings of an ordinary Sunday and, at the same time, I found myself wondering if I’ll ever get used to the reality of our new, down-sized family.

In years past, the four of us could easily pick fifty pounds of strawberries in less than an hour; by late winter, they would all be gone, too. Yesterday, Steve and I agreed: twenty-five pounds would be plenty. There are, after all, only two of us now. And yet, still as always, what a treat it will be, some winter’s night, to thaw out a generous heap of our own strawberries, sprinkle them with sugar, and ladle them over bowls of vanilla ice cream, each bite a redolent reminder of summers past and a promise of summer’s eventual return.

The time has long since vanished when a family’s survival depended on each member pulling his or her weight, hunting and gathering, planting and reaping, so that food would appear on the table at the end of the day. And yet, picking berries with my husband yesterday morning was a gentle reminder to me: our busy, complicated, human lives are still inextricably linked to the earth, and to all things there is a season.

Strawberry season — like childhood, like marriage, like life itself — is fleeting. Fail to pay attention, get too distracted by other things, and you’ll miss it. And so, come June, I watch the weather and, with some sense of urgency, I mark off a Saturday for berries. Our days of family outings to the berry patch may have ended, but there is beauty in this new configuration, too, as I look over at my husband of twenty-five years, head bent to his work, peacefully filling his tray.

Again and again, these days, I find myself brought to this threshold between acceptance of what is and sadness for what’s over. I can mourn the life chapter that has quietly, inevitably, come to a close, or I can choose instead to appreciate the modest, though no less meaningful, gift of what is — right here, right now. And so it is that I gather up my basket full of memories and resolve to carry it with a lighter heart. I want to make sure that I am present to this day and this place, so that I am able to relish this time alone with my husband, to savor the easy ebb and flow of our conversation as we load up our flats and fill our stomachs.

After all, the joy of berry picking is always, in part, the joy of the moment — the caressing breeze of a summer day, the ripe, rich smell of dirt and mulch and luscious fruit; birdsong, blue sky, good company. But it is also the bittersweet joy of acceptance, of knowing that this fine day, too will end, that summer bends inevitably toward fall, that little boys grow into men and leave home, that seasons turn and life changes and nothing lasts forever. I do know that, and I’m okay with it.

But I also know that when I sit down in frigid February to a bowl of fragrant strawberries picked in June, I will pause and marvel, grateful that in the simple act of picking berries and putting them by, we’ve managed to capture not only summer’s lavish bounty, but a few good memories as well.