the family we choose

IMG_2949“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break.”
~ Chinese proverb

I always wanted a daughter. Last year, I finally got one.

She arrived not as a newborn into my arms, but into my heart instead, and fully grown. And yet the mysterious, compelling process of attachment has changed us both. Perhaps that’s because as long as we’re fully engaged in forging deeper relationships with others, we’re also continuously being formed ourselves, sculpted and honed by the invisible hand of love.

The first email from my daughter-to-be came a couple of years ago, through my website:

Hello…. Today I watched the Ordinary Day video and found myself crying in my cube at work. I am not a mother (yet). I am a Connecticut native who became a transplant in Atlanta – working and dating with no long-lasting luck.

Your video moved me because even though I am 32 years old, I have always longed for my parents, or perhaps more so my Mom, to share with me her feelings like you did. . . .Funny enough, I am much like you: Nostalgic, and with a plethora of stories of the five kids I grew up babysitting, and I long for those “ordinary days” even for myself!”

Lauren wanted to order a book for herself and one to give to her cousin for Mother’s Day. And, Lauren being Lauren, she wanted to make her gift special by having me inscribe it.

That was the beginning – an innocuous exchange similar to hundreds of others I’ve had over the years. But, Lauren being Lauren, she followed up her request for books with a thank you note. What’s more, she told me she’d now read The Gift of an Ordinary Day and sensed in me a kindred spirit, the kind of mother she herself aspired to be one day.

Fast forward a few months, to early autumn 2013. [continue…]

Motherhood Realized

motherhood jacket imageFlying to the west coast recently, I found myself seated on the plane alongside a young couple. They appeared to be about twenty-four or so, the same age as my own older son. She, five months pregnant, was immersed in a how-to book about mothering newborns. He, sweet but distracted, played a video game on his computer.

I couldn’t help but watch them with tenderness, these two innocent parents-to-be with so many joys and challenges and unknowns in their future. The young woman spent a long time bent over a page of diagrams showing, in step-by-step detail, how to swaddle a baby. At one point, she summoned her husband’s attention to the page as well. She went through the motions of blanket folding in the air, concentrating intently, referring back to the directions. It was clear she wanted him to take the swaddling lesson as seriously as she did.

“We have lots of time to practice, honey,” her husband said, before turning his gaze back to the screen on his laptop.

Shyly, she turned then to me. “Do you have children?” she asked.

I told her I did, two sons.

“Did you swaddle them?”

“Yes,” I answered. “But not for long. That only lasted for a week or so. By the time I got good at it, they didn’t want to be swaddled anymore. And then I had to learn something else. That’s pretty much the way it goes all the way through motherhood — just as you get one thing figured out, your child is on to some new stage, and you’re trying to keep up.” [continue…]

A healing journey

L5 xray
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to learn

~ Pema Chodron

We looked at the X-rays together, my son Jack and I.

“This is last August,” the orthopedist said, pointing to the image on the left, showing two clear fractures in Jack’s L-5 vertebrae, fractures that, after 6 months, were showing no signs of healing on one side and only a minimal feathering of bone growth on the other.

“And this is now,” he said, indicating the scan from last week. “Completely healed.

“I can tell you,” he said turning to Jack and raising his hand for a high five, “this hardly ever happens.”

I remember my very first glimpse of my younger son: the dark, cool room; the ultrasound wand sliding through the goop on my swollen stomach; my husband peering over me to get a look at the shadowy little curlicue of a person floating deep within my belly. It was, I am suddenly realizing, twenty-one years ago this summer – my son’s entire lifetime ago, and yet still fresh and vivid in my mind’s eye. The technician asked if we wanted to know the sex of our baby. [continue…]

Guideposts

shadows at Bailey IBefore the first winter snow flies here in New Hampshire, some of us pound stakes into the ground alongside our driveways, to remind us later, after the landscape is blanketed in white, of exactly where the pavement ends and the lawn begins.  Nothing fancy, just a few metal rods, perhaps with a reflector at the top, to keep the plow or the snowblower from straying off track.  They are, quite literally, guideposts.

As I sat holed up in my bedroom today, making notes for the talk I’ll give to a group of parents on the West Coast on Tuesday, I realized that some of the quotes that have shaped me as a mother are really the spiritual equivalents of those guideposts poking up through the snow:  words that keep me on track when the familiar landscape of our family life is suddenly altered by some challenge or unexpected turn in the emotional weather.

It’s so easy, when things get stormy around here or seem a bit out of control, to lose my way.  But if being the mother of two sons who have now attained the impossibly grown-up ages of 20 and 23 has taught me anything, it’s that storms pass and that control is an illusion anyway.  Still, it helps when the weather is wild, to have some markers pounded into the earth, words that remind me of where I want to put my feet, of the solid ground I know is there for me, just beneath the blinding swirl of whatever’s coming down.

Attachment to outcome has probably been the biggest challenge on my own parenting path. Little wonder then that my central task as a mother seems to be practicing the art of nonattachment.  And so I look to the wisdom of others to remind me of what I already know:  I can love and care for my children, but I can’t possess them.  I can assist them, and pray for them, and wish them well, but in the end their happiness and suffering depend on their choices and their destinies, not on my wishes.

It surprised me to notice today that none of the quotes that keep me on track as a parent actually come from books about parenting.  But perhaps that’s as it should be. For the other thing this journey of motherhood has taught me is that my children are not extensions of me, and my real work isn’t about changing them, or shaping them into the people I think they ought to be. It’s about changing myself – learning to soften, to trust, to pay attention, to accept, and, most of all, finding the faith to let them go.

So, here are the guideposts I’ve placed along my own path, to keep me moving in the direction I aspire to travel.  What words serve as your guideposts on this journey?

(A word about this photo, taken ten years or so ago at sunset on a summer day in Maine:  I love the joy in these shadows, the memory of a vanished, distant time, the fact that Jack and I danced and played in that golden light and Steve grabbed his camera and captured the fleeting, precious moment.  It still makes me smile and get a little teary at the same time. And it reminds me: be present; we will not pass this way again.)

Words for the Journey

“To bow to the fact of our life’s sorrows and betrayals is to accept them; and from this deep gesture we discover that all life is workable. As we learn to bow, we discover that the heart holds more freedom and compassion than we could imagine.”   — Jack Kornfield

“I try to remind myself that we are never promised anything, and that what control we can exert is not over the events that befall us but how we address ourselves to them.”   — Jeanne DuPrau, The Earth House

“It has something to do with submitting rather than dominating. Surrender, submit. Have faith, trust in the mystery. That’s not easy. Surrendering one’s life to living in, and serving, the beauty of a mysterious world is a big step. . . .The purpose of the journey is compassion.”

— Joseph Campbell,  An Open Life

“Who you are is made up of three persons.  There is the one you think you are, the one others think you are, and the one you really are.  Work towards making all three the same. Then there will be peace and bliss.”          —  Sri Sathya Sai Baba

“Live in the present. Do the things that need to be done. Do all the good you can each day. The future will unfold.”  — Peace Pilgrim

 “Life is change.  Growth is optional.  Choose wisely.”  — Karen Kaiser Clark

“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”   — Jon Kabat-Zinn

 “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”    — Buddha

 “To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon.”

“We must love (our children) for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do.  Loving our own children is an exercise in imagination.”   — Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree

 

A Magical Journey update

Some books are review books. (Think a quotable rave from the New York Times).  That’s not this book.  Some authors appear on The Today Show or The View, with answers to all your questions about how to be happy.  (Think instant ascension on the best-seller list.)  That’s not me.  I am an under-the-media’s-radar kind of writer.  And I’m pretty sure  Magical Journey is a word-of-mouth kind of book.  That’s fine with me.  And I am deeply grateful to every single one of you who have bought a copy, shared a copy, or urged a friend to give it a try, saying, “Here, I think you’ll like this, too.”  Thank you!

Last week, Magical Journey was #1 on the best-seller list at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, NH.  Sure, it’s a small independent bookstore in a small city in the middle of my home state, but I’m pretty thrilled to be #1 anywhere.  And yes, readers made it happen.

Want to spread the word?  Here are three quick things you can do.  (With huge thanks in advance for your help.  It really DOES make a difference!)

1. Write a brief review on Amazon.

2.  Like my page on Facebook and share posts with your friends. (I update there often, and post news of every appearance too.)

3. Share the book!  (I just received a new box of beautiful, blank, custom book plates.  And I’m happy to personalize as many as you’d like and mail them right out to you.  Just drop me a line and let me know how many and where to send them. Valentine’s Day gifts, perhaps??)

Also, check my Events page to see if I’m coming this spring to a bookstore near you. Thanks to the generosity of fans and friends, I’m on my way to the West Coast this week:  La Canada, Laguna Beach, and Pasadena.

If you missed Priscilla Gilman’s thoughtful interview  Click Here.

 

 

Trading Kids


He didn’t need training wheels anymore, but there was no way our cautious little boy was going to let us take them off. My husband didn’t say it, but I knew what he was thinking: “The kid will be twenty, and he still won’t know how to ride a two-wheeler.”

Up and down the driveway they went, Steve patiently urging him on, a hand at his back, seven-year-old Henry earnestly pedaling. It was past time for this bird to fly. But he was afraid to test his wings.

So, we did what we always did in our old neighborhood: we turned to “the village” for help. Henry needed a push, and he needed to get it from a dad who wasn’t his own flesh and blood. Which is how it happened that our next-door neighbor Bob loaded Henry and his little bike into their van one summer afternoon and took off, with a promise that they wouldn’t return until Henry was ready to arrive on his own two wheels.

Within an hour we were standing out in the back yard to cheer on our boy as he came soaring down the driveway, a mile-wide grin plastered across his face. Bob was modest, as always, but clearly pleased: another child launched. It didn’t matter a bit that it wasn’t one of his. My husband ached, just a little; he’d wanted for himself the satisfaction of teaching his first-born son how to ride a bike. But he was also wise enough to know that what we had was even better — a web of parents looking out for one another and sharing the joys and challenges of raising our children together.

Our sons grew up knowing all the nooks and crannies, the refrigerator contents, and the house rules of the Cashions and the Wickerhams as well as they knew their own. We had the yard for baseball games and the overflowing basket of dress-up clothes and puppets for theatrical productions. The Wickerhams were the go-to family for backyard bonfires, sleep-outs on the deck, and a reliable bagel supply. The Cashions had the best house for hide-and-seek, dance music, and Slip ‘n’ Slide on a hot summer day.

They were a pack of seven children thrown together by age and proximity, and they forged fortuitous, enduring friendships, just as we parents did. Somehow we all agreed, without ever having to discuss it, that we would be there for one another. We traded kids and meals and driving duties, hand-me-down clothes and hard-won wisdom. There was laughter and tears, lots and lots of listening, plenty of advice, both sought and unsought. Traditions, celebrations, and memories.

The kids are mostly grown now, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one and separated by geography, different schools, different life experiences. We left our old green house on the cul de sac seven years ago, certain that we were leaving as well our accidental, fortuitous village, the extra moms and dads who had contributed so much to our sons’ lives just by being there, by loving them enough to keep their homes and their hearts open to two little boys who just happened to live next door.

If someone could have flashed me forward then, from the day we pulled out of the shared driveway for the last time, to the summer of 2011, I might not have shed quite so many tears about moving away. I would have seen that friendship can be nurtured and deepened from a distance, that children turn as naturally toward love as plants turn toward the sun, and that the closeness our families created back when we were all just learning how to be families is stronger than the pull of time or distance.

This summer, Jack is working in Boston, an hour and a half from our house in New Hampshire. It’s possible only because the Cashions’ back door is still open for him, even now. Monday through Thursday, he sleeps at their house, where he is fed and loved and driven to the train station each morning by my friend Carol, his other mother.

I’ll always remember how we learned that Lia Wickerham had arrived in the neighborhood, nineteen years ago last week: over our baby monitor, tuned to the same frequency as theirs, only a few yards away: “I’ll change her,” we heard her dad Wendell say on the night they brought her home, “I might as well learn how right now.” Born right between Henry and Jack, Lia was friend and playmate to both. So when she came home the other day after nearly two weeks in the hospital, still struggling with some mysterious digestive illness, it seemed only natural to offer her a few days of R&R at our house in the country, to give both her and her exhausted, worried mom a break.

Yesterday morning, Jack and Lia and I took a walk through the woods. The kids reminisced about old times, their childhood memories astonishingly vivid and fresh. What they clearly cherished most of all was the very fact of their long history together, the preciousness of these friendships that began at birth and have managed to survive all the twists and turns in the road to adulthood. And there was something else too. “We all had three moms,” Lia said. “That was so cool.”

Sometimes I still miss being the 24/7 mother of two little boys and the on-call mom for whatever combination of kids happened to playing out on the swing set on any given afternoon. But I wouldn’t have traded any of those long-gone days for the pleasure of yesterday, walking through a glorious July morning and listening to the conversation of these two thoughtful young adults who trust one another enough to share not only their memories of the past (Barney underwear and backyard circuses) but the very real challenges and questions they face in the present.

This may just be one of the greatest lessons we can pass on to our children — that in this complicated world, neither nations nor individuals can resolve their problems by themselves. Our lives, our destinies, are interconnected. It’s okay to ask for help and a blessing to be in a position to offer it, whether we are fifteen or fifty-two, for someday the tables will be turned. Developing a sense of universal responsibility, we move toward a better life for all. Perhaps I wasn’t fully conscious of that, back in the days when our sons felt perfectly comfortable grabbing an apple out of the next door neighbor’s fridge or wearing a best friend’s outgrown winter jacket, but I know it now. We are here to take care of one another. There are plenty of kids to go around, always someone to nurture, always a child who could use a sympathetic ear, a bed to sleep in, or a meal prepared with love. Being a mother means taking care not only of our own families, but of our neighbors and our global family as well. We need each other.