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My Apple IICX could run two programs at once, Clarisworks and Filemaker Pro, which meant I could do word-processing (an outdated phrase if every there was!)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…]

Waiting

photoYou could say, we are waiting here.

Waiting to find out which colleges will accept Jack for next fall. (So far, one yes, one no, one wait list.) Waiting to see what choices he’ll make and which school — after a year of working and living on his own and figuring out whether he even wants to go to college at all — will finally feel like “the one.” Waiting to see if the next round of X-rays will show further healing in his two broken vertebrae. Waiting for his pain to disappear. Waiting to find out if he’ll be able to play tennis again or have to content himself with being a passionate fan. Waiting to learn which doors have closed in his young life and which have yet to open before him.

We’re waiting to hear if the job Henry has his heart set on will pan out. Waiting for the musical he’s co-directing to be performed. Waiting to know where he’ll be working for the summer. Waiting to find out where he’ll be living next year. Waiting to see if he’s going to need a car. Waiting for him to decide whether grad school is still part of the picture. Waiting to see if the pull of a someday-maybe Broadway dream turns out to be as powerfully alluring as the illusion of security conferred by a paycheck and a plan.

We are waiting for two young adults’ ever-shifting and unknowable futures to become the nailed-down and predictable present-tense, for dreams to become reality, hopes to be realized, expectations fulfilled, applications accepted or denied, next steps executed, careers  revealed, life to turn this way or that.

And then another letter arrives from a reader who has lost a child. I turn the calendar to March and realize it’s been ten years since my dear friend’s son was murdered three months before his college graduation while trying to save a teammate who was being beaten on a street corner. I open the newspaper and read the headline: “BU student dies at party.” A new friend on Facebook posts that, had her daughter lived, she would be turning twelve today. I find myself in tears as I read Emily Rapp’s fiercely moving memoir of parenting her son Ronan, who died of Tay- Sachs disease last month, just shy of his third birthday.

Life is long, I like to tell myself. But of course, that isn’t always true. Everything will turn out for the best, we assure our children, and ourselves. But that’s not always the case either. Sometimes life is cut short. And sometimes the most beautiful dreams are derailed by tragedy. Sometimes children get sick or hurt and sometimes they leave us. How foolish and naive, to think we think we can skim along on the surface of life without cultivating, at the same time, an intimate relationship with its dark and unknown depths. And how much we sacrifice when we trade the quiet, unobtrusive pulse of the moment that is right here, right now, for the false promise of some brightly imagined future.

Last night, while Henry and his dad watched the Celtics game on TV, I climbed into bed with Emily Rapp’s book, Still Point of the Turning World. Ronan’s brief life was never about making progress or racking up achievements; he was only nine months old when his parents were told their baby boy was going to die. Emily’s task, then, wasn’t ever to prepare her son to succeed in the world, but to love him just as he was for as long as he was here. Somehow, every moment of her mothering had to contain multitudes: both the joy of being Ronan’s mom and the grief of letting him go.

Perhaps there is no one better suited to speak to us distracted, harried, future-oriented parents than a mother who has had no choice but to live in the “now” and to embrace her child in the moment because he will not live long enough to have a “someday.”

“How does the knowledge that nothing lasts forever and that all of our time is limited change the way we approach the world?” Emily asks.

And then, like the best spiritual mentors, she answers her own unanswerable question with more questions:

“Will we be fearless in our pursuit to live a life we consider big and beautiful, no matter what other people might think of our choices and no matter what difficult changes we might have to make? How does this knowledge affect the way we parent? Not knowing what tomorrow will bring, would we be so concerned with our children’s ‘progress’ and perhaps more interested in activities that simply make them happy?”

The sun is rising as I type these words, pouring light into the sky after two days of snow. In a few minutes, I’ll shut down my computer, take a shower, go out for blueberry pancakes with my husband and older son. Later today, I’ll do a reading at the bookstore in the town where I grew up. I’ll hold up the 12-foot long piece of blue finger-knitting that Jack did when he was five, giving me the title for my first book, Mitten Strings for God, which contained everything I knew as a young mother about slowing down and paying attention. And then I’ll drive to the bus stop and pick up my 20-year-old son and bring him back to the house for dinner. We’ll light the candles, hold hands for a moment before we start to eat, say “Blessings on the meal and each other.”

I will mention, as I always do when we’re all home together, how happy I am to have everyone at the table. My husband will agree and our sons, who have yet to fully comprehend that each human life is a progression of farewells, will no doubt roll their eyes.

And then I’ll remind myself: there is nothing to wait for. All we need, we have.

To read an essay by Emily Rapp and watch her Today Show appearance, click here

And I cannot recommend her exquisitely written and profoundly generous book, Still Point of the Turning World, highly enough.

 

Magical Journey News

 

Months before my book was published, I told my friend Ann Patchett that my only real aspiration as an author was to do an event at her bookstore. So it was definitely a disappointment to get all the way to Nashville during publication week in January, only to have an ice storm shut the entire city down an hour before I was supposed to read. Happily, we’ve rescheduled just before Mother’s Day. I’ll be back at Parnassus on Thursday, May 2.

From Nashville, I’ll go straight to Minneapolis for my last two appearances: The annual Motherhood and Words talk at the Loft Literary Center on Saturday, May 4 and, finally, to cap it all off, a reading at Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor’s beloved bookstore in downtown St. Paul on Monday, May 6. I can’t wait! (And then I’m looking forward to coming home for good, stowing my suitcase in the closet, and digging in the garden.)

Magical Journey is a book that seems to sell one copy at at a time, as one reader says to another, “Here, I think you’ll like this, too.” I haven’t seen it piled up on any bookstores’ front tables (except right here in my own hometown). There were no print ads, no big TV breaks, barely any reviews. And yet I am learning not to underestimate the power of word of mouth, of women’s passionate enthusiasm for books that speak to our real experience, and of our generosity toward one another. This morning, I signed 20 copies of Magical Journey and The Gift of an Ordinary Day for one California reader who is sending them to her special friends. This is word of mouth and then some!

Meanwhile, the online ripples continue to spread outward. If you’ve contributed to those widening circles — by liking my Facebook page, writing a review on Amazon, showing my video to your friends, or sharing my blog posts on Facebook and Twitter — thank you! (And if you’d like to help me by helping my book find its way in the world, these are quick and highly effective ways to keep it moving!) As you know, I’m always happy to sign bookplates (just drop me an email or FB message) and I can personalize copies of any of my books through my local bookstore, which will mail them right out to you. (That link is HERE.)

Loved these recent reviews and interviews:

Ali Edwards is a rock star to crafty types, with a huge and devoted following (and no wonder, her message about telling our own ordinary stories with words and pictures is as inspiring as it is irresistible). So of course I was pretty thrilled to be featured on her blog this week. Click here to read her lovely piece.

The Ali ripple effect actually began HERE, with Harriet Cabelly’s terrific Rebuild Your Life site.

I was honored when Amy Makechnie asked if I’d be her first interviewee in her new “fascinating person” series; I should have known she’d come up with questions as engaging as she herself is. Read the whole Maisymak interview HERE.

More on “Love Your Fate” — and books to give away

“Everyone has a story. Mine began in November of 2000 when I thought I’d given birth to the smallest baby ever born.”

So begins Kasey Mathews’ moving memoir Preemie, an account not only of a birth story gone terribly awry but also of a young woman giving birth to herself, learning to love and accept the person she is through the harrowing, humbling process of learning to love and accept her tiny, excruciatingly fragile baby girl, born more than four months premature.

Nearly twenty-three years after my own first pregnancy, I still remember a line from one of the many parenting books I read in preparation for my daunting new role of “mother.” The gist of it was something like this: “In the days after you give birth, you will grieve the death of the idealized baby you have envisioned for nine months. And you will begin to love and accept the real, imperfect, and perfectly beautiful child who has come to you.”

The very idea of grief having any part to play in the miracle of birth was too frightening to contemplate. And the notion that my own baby might be anything less than perfect was the kind of middle-of-the-night anxiety that I tried desperately to avoid. Much better, I was certain, to envision only the best outcomes: an easy delivery, a healthy baby, happiness all around.

But best outcomes are not always ours to call, and sometimes perfection is found not in our idealized images of the way we believe things “ought” to be, but in our fumbling, awkward, valiant efforts to grow up and become the people we are truly meant to be. For of course, before we can deeply love another flawed, imperfect, vulnerable soul, we must first be willing to love ourselves — even if who we are is so much less than who we still aspire to become.

Any woman who has experienced the trauma of giving birth to a premature baby knows just how quickly, and how devastatingly, a life can turn. One day you are choosing paint colors for the nursery, the next you are staring at the ceiling of a hospital emergency room; one minute you are diligently practicing your “hut” breathing, the next you are being prepped for anesthesia; one minute you are envisioning your own beautiful baby at your breast, the next you are swaddled in sterile scrubs, staring down at a pitifully small one-pound creature that looks nothing like the newborn of your dreams but, as Kasey so vividly describes, more like “a potato with tiny arms and legs.”

“I thought if I could figure out why this was happening, I could make it stop,” Kasey writes, describing the confusion she feels as emergency room nurses begin the race to save her unborn baby’s life. She searches for clues, chronicling the past week’s activities: the bath she took, the sushi she ate, a game of paddle tennis. The nurses assure Kasey it’s not her fault that her March baby is coming in November, that it’s nothing she did, nothing she can control.

Finally, I clutched a nurse’s arm. She was walking backwards, facing me, guiding the gurney down the hall. I dug my fingers into her flesh. I needed to know she was real. She looked at me. Her eyes, framed in dark circles, softened. I thought I’d found my sympathetic audience. “You don’t understand,” I said to her in a more coherent, controlled voice. “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.”
She held my gaze for a moment, and I waited. A gold cross swung at the base of her neck.
She continued to look at me. And then she said, “It does now.”

Last week, I wrote here about the momentous challenge inherent in the words “amor fati,” or “love your fate.” Preemie is the courageous account of one woman’s struggle to do just that, to love not only her fate but also the small, desperately vulnerable and miraculously determined little girl who survived against all odds to become her mother’s greatest spiritual teacher.

Kasey Mathews tells deep, painful truths about how it feels when a “perfect” life is jolted by reality. She writes about guilt and failure, shock and shame, loneliness and confusion and loss. And she writes about her own halting journey from darkness into light and from fear toward faith, a journey that surely illuminates our greatest and most universal human task: the work of learning to embrace imperfect beauty, of realizing that a good life is determined not by what happens to us, but by what we choose to make of it. Once again, amor fati.

I first met Kasey just three years ago this week. My own memoir, The Gift of an Ordinary Day had been in the stores for two days, and I was doing my very first book signing at a nearby book shop. There were all of four people in attendance; two of them were blood relations (my mother and my brother), the third was a mother from Jack’s class at school, and the fourth was a lovely woman I’d never seen before. She sat down in a chair near the back and waved to me with a warm smile, as if we were already friends. I thought perhaps she’d wandered in by mistake, so little publicity had been done for this event. But no, it turned out that she was an actual reader; she had in fact come that day to see me. I scrapped my prepared talk, read a couple of chapters, and then sat down to chat a bit with my charitable audience of four.

Kasey introduced herself, and told us she was writing a book. As she shared the story of her daughter’s birth, and of the fear and surrender and hard-won happiness of the last nine years of her family’s life together, I found myself wishing that she would hurry up and finish writing. I wanted to read it, to hear about how Andie persevered and grew, and even more, how her beautiful mom had grown right alongside her. I didn’t doubt for a moment that Kasey had a book in her. Her quiet eloquence confirmed her as a story teller, and her determination to offer hope and support to other women facing challenges of their own would surely carry her across the finish line.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into Kasey and Andie, now a lively twelve year old, outside the grocery store downtown. Although I’ve followed each stage of Preemie’s long labor and triumphant delivery (nothing premature about this birth!) I had missed Kasey’s book publication party, earlier this summer. It was my first opportunity to say “Congratulations!” in person.

“I want to write about your book!” I told her. And with that, she reached into the back seat of her car, grabbed a copy, signed it, and handed it to me.

To win this signed copy of Preemie, along with a signed copy of my very first book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, just leave a comment below. Write about how the words amor fati have resonated in YOUR life. Or, of course, just let me know you’d like to read this special book. I will draw a winner at random on Saturday, September 8. (In the meantime, visit Kasey at http://www.kaseymathews.com/.)

JIMMY FUND MARATHON WALK UPDATE:

I have just a week more to train for my 26.2 mile walk on September 9, in memory of my friend Diane. I’ve listened to a couple of books on Audible.com while walking the New Hampshire countryside. But mostly, these days, I watch the seasons change, and remember my friend, and our talks two summers ago as she thought about the legacy she would leave. It is for her, for these memories, that I will walk next Sunday.

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!

Perfect

I began writing my first book, “Mitten Strings for God,” the year Henry and Jack were five and eight. My husband and I were right in the thick of it, parenting two small children. We were busy, exhausted, finding our way, certain that everyone else must be better at this than we were. I remember struggling to accommodate and care for our two boys — so very different from each of us and, miraculously, complete polar opposites of one another as well — and wishing these two single-edition models had arrived with instruction manuals of some sort, so we wouldn’t have to flail about so day after day, trying to figure out what they each needed and how best to give it to them.

Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t been so afraid. I wish I’d trusted myself more. I wish I’d believed that I already had what it takes to be a good mother, rather than constantly berating myself for not being smart enough, or patient enough, or wise enough, or loving enough. I wish I’d had more faith in my kids. Faith that they could survive their bumpy, perilous journeys on the road to young adulthood and be stronger for the bruises endured along the way. Faith that, no matter how crazy or irrational or clingy or tearful or restless or angry or oversensitive or afraid they seemed at two or five or eight, they would eventually get it all sorted out and grow up and be fine. I wish I had laughed with them more and worried about them less. I wish I’d allowed myself to sleep more deeply during those years, rather than staring at the ceiling so many nights and promising myself that I would do better tomorrow. I wish I’d known, really known then, the way I think I know now, that every moment is precious, that life is short, and that it’s all good, even when it’s not.

Writing was a way for me to remind myself, day after day, what really mattered. In order to write, I had to gaze at my children with clear eyes; when I did, I was blinded by their radiance. In order to write, I had to become utterly quiet and still; when I did, I was amazed by the beauty that was my life. In order to write, I had to look into the truth of things as they actually were. When I did, my heart cracked wide open. What I saw, again and again, was the breathtaking miracle of our existence together: two children held in the sturdy embrace of two parents who loved them with a depth and a passion that I never did find adequate words to express.

A couple of months ago, when the boys were both home for a weekend, we watched some old home movies of the two of them cutting up in the back yard, playing catch, impersonating their favorite umpires, goofing off and being funny and adorable and heart-wrenchingly young. There was footage of Jack impishly plucking herbs from the garden in the back yard and eating them straight out of his hand. A serious young Henry at the piano, playing his very first songs. I put my arm around Jack as the video screen went blank and jokingly said something like, “You see, you guys did have a good childhood.”

“Mom,” he said back, with rare seriousness, “we had a perfect childhood.”

And that is what I am thinking about now, as I consider a batch of fresh challenges, the challenges that come with the territory of being eighteen and twenty-one. Or, perhaps I should say, with the territory of being the parents of an eighteen and a twenty-one year old. Maybe it is all perfect just as it is, even if perfection isn’t easy to see in this moment, from an inch or two away. Maybe, years from now, we will look back on this early spring of 2011 and recall not the worries about the lack of summer jobs, the hazy plans, the shortage of cars and money, but rather, perfection. The sweetness that is the essence of life, even when it’s not as simple and straightforward as we might wish.

My brother and his wife have had a tough winter themselves, with a two-year-old who’s just had tubes put in her ears after months of infections and courses of ineffectual antibiotics, and a four-year-old who, in his first months of nursery school, has caught every bug that’s come down the pike. Ask them to describe what life has been like in their house of late and “perfection” is not a word they’d be likely to use.

And yet, that’s the word that occurred to me, when they sent along this photo of Angelique and Gabriel. Just one wild and crazy moment in the midst of yet another ordinary day. Just life as it is, captured, even as it turns into something else. Perfection.