Walking to remember

Turning the calendar page to August is always a little hard for me. There is no denying that we’re entering the final weeks of summer, that the days are growing shorter, that there’s more dead-heading going on in the garden than new growth, that the sun at twilight seems more fragile somehow, less robust than the relentless blast of July. I begin to mark time: the end of raspberry season, the passing of peaches, the crickets’ first evening symphony, spikes of goldenrod appearing alongside the road.

For me, too, August will forever be remembered as the month when I had to begin saying good-bye to my friend Diane. Two summers ago, as we sat on her patio and drank iced tea and talked for hours, I couldn’t quite imagine the world without her in it.

This, of course, is what grief is all about. We become familiar with the unimaginable and, in the process, we are made profoundly aware of the fragility of our own ordinary days. We learn firsthand that sorrow and loss are part of being human. That hearts can break and then, slowly, begin to mend. That out of deep sadness can come goodness. And, finally, that with each act of kindness and compassion, with each gesture we make in the memory of our loved one, we bring healing not only to ourselves but out into the world as well.

Last September, I completed my first Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk. I walked the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston because I believed it was the best way to honor my dear friend – by carrying forward the work she believed in so passionately.

Diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer at age 51, Diane made two choices: to respond to her disease with aggressive treatment and to fully embrace the simple pleasures of her everyday life. Under the cutting-edge care of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, she was able to do both for nearly four years.

During that time, she also worked tirelessly to support ovarian cancer research, completing three Jimmy Fund walks even while undergoing treatment herself, participating in several clinical trials, and raising thousands of dollars.

As Diane’s husband David recalled, “She was animated by a desire to live for the things that mattered to her most – mothering, friendships, and giving back. She experimented with clinical trials that had very little prospect of advancing her situation, but gave generously to potentially advance the science.”

That was Diane – determined, always, to find meaning and purpose in the time she had, even as her disease chipped away at so much of what she loved. As her own journey came to and end, Diane made another decision. She asked that those who wished to remember her do so by carrying on in her footsteps. More than anything, she hoped that more effective treatments and earlier detection might make other women’s prognoses better than her own.

Team Diane was formed in response to that wish. Walking together last year, this small group of Diane’s close friends raised over $35,000 for her cause.

It was a great achievement, made possible in part by your generous donations to my walk. What touched me most of all last year was the realization that it made no difference at all that most readers of my blog didn’t know Diane personally.

What mattered much more was the fact that there is barely a soul among us whose life has not been touched by cancer. We have all lost someone or supported a loved one through dark hours. And so, far flung as we may be, we do share a common goal and a deep sense of connection. Whether we are called to walk, or to open our hearts and pocketbooks in support of those who walk, we are all partners in this work. And together we DO make a difference.

I am proud to walk again this year. Team Diane has mobilized with renewed commitment — we hope to meet or exceed last year’s total on September 9. Best of all: all monies raised will go directly to Diane’s Fund, established this spring by the Brewster family to support ovarian cancer research under the direction of Diane’s Dana Farber oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis.

This week, I began training in earnest for the 26-mile trek on September 9. As I walk the country roads around my home in New Hampshire, I carry my friend in my heart, knowing that in some way she is accompanying me with every step, urging me on. But this year, I also have a sense of just how vast this network of love and hope and connection really is. I may walk alone, but I know now that I’m also part of something that is bigger, and far more powerful, than any one of us.

If you supported me last year and wish to do so again, I’d be most grateful. And to all of you who are new to this space, please know that there is no pressure here, but rather an invitation to join me in an effort that means a great deal to me personally — and that will surely touch each of our lives at some point. (According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012 alone more than 22,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This deadliest of all gynecologic cancers will claim more than 15,000 lives this year.)

Diane and I shared a love of Mary Oliver’s poetry, and of one poem in particular, “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines, a prescient reminder that life is both fleeting and inexpressibly lovely.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, because I think it would please my friend, I’d love to share our favorite poet with you. If you do donate below, leave a comment and let me know. I will select at random one winner on Wednesday, August 1, to receive Volumes One and Two of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems.

Thanks so much for your support!

Here’s how to help:

**To make a quick and easy tax-deductible contribution to my walk on Sept. 9, CLICK HERE.

**If you prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk, and write “DIANE’S FUND” in the memo line. Then mail it to me, Katrina Kenison, at 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

**Widen the circle by sharing this post with your friends, on your Facebook page, and on Twitter.

To read more about the cutting edge research being carried out by Dr. Matulonis and her team at Dana Farber, CLICK HERE.

A brief friendship, a lasting memory

Her doctor told her she had, at best, two years to live.  That was nearly twenty-five years ago, when Kathy Rich learned that after a brief remission, her stage four breast cancer had returned.

My friend Jamie Raab knew Kathy and I would hit it off, and she was right.  Last summer, when I went to spend a weekend at Jamie’s country house in upstate New York, she arranged for Kathy to come, too.

The day we spent together was a scorcher; ninety-eight degrees in the shade.  But the heat didn’t stop Kathy from suggesting that we hop in the car and drive over to Rosendale, to walk around at a street festival and hear some music.

I was eyeing the pool, a novel I’d brought along, thinking it was way too hot to move, let alone fight the crowds milling around between a dozen outdoor stages.  But I kept my mouth shut.  Kathy was game, and she was the one with a leg brace, a crutch, a wig, and cancer.

The music was pretty loud and mostly awful, the heat was withering, but the people-watching was exceptional – it was as if we’d stepped back in time, landing smack in the middle of Woodstock Nation.  We wandered slowly, painstakingly, through a sea of tie-dye.  We watched girls in pig-tails and bikinis do amazing things with hula hoops.  We drank lemonade, bought silver earrings, marveled at the displays of peace signs and hemp tote bags and gauzy India Import blouses, just like the ones we’d all worn in high school.  We sought shade.  Kathy never complained, though it was obvious that each step required an effort, that it hurt her to walk, and that the heat was taking a cruel toll.  What she made clear however, without ever having to say so, was that pain was a price she was willing to pay for experience.

Later, back at the house, Kathy and I hung out for a couple of hours, while Jamie went off to buy groceries and pick up another friend at the train. Kathy asked if I’d mind if she took off her wig; on the hottest day of the summer, a thick helmet of someone else’s hair on your head is its own particular form of torture.  When she came out of the bathroom a few minutes later in her bathing suit, she’d removed both the wig and the brace.  She seemed a lot more comfortable.  And heartbreakingly vulnerable.  Tiny, pale, completely bald, with enormous dark eyes and a dazzling smile, Kathy looked, I thought, like a luminously beautiful alien from another planet.  And in a way, that is what she was.  How does anyone live on this earth for twenty-five years after being told your time is up, without becoming a little other-worldly?  She’d had a foot on the other side for a long time.

To say she also had perspective on what’s important in life is, of course, an understatement; what astonished me most, though, was the purity of her joy.  Sick as she was — and even though she knew the disease she’d somehow outwitted and outlasted for years was catching up with her at last– Kathy was also an eternal optimist; how, at this point, could she be anything but? And she was, quite simply, lots of fun to be around.

I slung one arm around her waist, held on to her elbow with my other hand and, laughing at my clumsiness, we somehow managed to hobble down to the pool. We lolled around in the water for an hour or so, talking as if we’d known one another all our lives.  Kathy was that kind of person — she cut right to the chase.  Right away, I loved her for that. Why waste time on social niceties when you can get down to the real stuff, life and death and the big questions, instead?  There was no subject I couldn’t broach with her, nothing that felt off limits; who cared that we’d only met that morning?

“How long have you needed the brace, and the cane?” I asked.  She told me that, although there had been times in the past when she’d been bedridden, this new, apparently permanent disability was recent.  She was still getting used to being so visibly and so physically “handicapped.”

“But you know,” she said, “it’s a funny thing.  When I started having so much trouble walking, what I found out there was just the friendliest world.”

Kathy didn’t stick around for dinner that night.  She was tired and wanted to get home before dark.  I remember watching her slip her wig back on, give it a little tousle and a quarter turn, so that one auburn lock hung down casually over her face.  We hugged good-bye, and Jamie told her friend she’d see her soon.  And then Kathy took her crutch and made her way out to her car, lowered herself in, and drove away.  I didn’t see her again.  But I see her now, in my mind’s eye.  And I know I will remember her always, a woman who knew all there is to know about living in the moment.

As most of you who are regular readers here are aware, I’ve been finishing work on a new book, trying to meet my deadline, which is now less than two weeks away. I’ve had to let the blog go for a while, in order to focus all my time on the manuscript.  But when I woke up this morning, and found a note on my phone from Jamie saying that Kathy had died yesterday, I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of writing done today.  Instead, I took a long walk.  I went to my favorite spot in the woods to pray and meditate and listen to the wind in the trees.  And I remembered Kathy.  I knew her only for that one day, but in that short time, we managed to cover a lot of ground.  It feels odd to say it, but I feel as if I’ve lost a friend.  Certainly, all who knew her have lost a teacher.

Below is an essay Kathy wrote a few years ago for the New York Times.  I read it again early this morning, through tears.  I may have written a book called The Gift of an Ordinary Day, but Kathy Rich, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, knew just how much the present is really worth.

17 Years Later, Stage 4 Survivor Is Savoring a Life Well Lived
By KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH
Each year on a day in January — the 15th, to be precise — I go to a Web site and post a message to hundreds of women I’ve never met, saying, essentially, “I’m still here.”
Within days, a thunderous chorus comes back, 200 voices, 300. A few of them ask, “How can this be?” Sometimes they begin, “I’m crying.” Many answer in kind: “I’m here, too. It’s now three years.” “Five years.” “Three months.” “Seven.”
What we’re doing, in a way, is checking for lights in the darkness.
Now there probably aren’t a lot of Web sites where the announcement that you’re around and breathing would cause anyone to take notice, let alone respond. But this is a site for people with Stage 4 breast cancer, something I’ve had for 17 years. The average life expectancy with the diagnosis is 30 months, so this is a little like saying I’m 172 years old: seemingly impossible. But it’s not. I first found I had the illness in 1988, and it was rediagnosed as Stage 4 in 1993. That’s 22 years all together, which is the reason I post each year on the anniversary of the day I learned my cancer was back: to let women know that it happens, that people do live with this for years.
I tell them that when the cancer returned, it came on so fast, spread so quickly, that I was given a year or two to live. Within months, the disease turned vicious. It started breaking bones from within, and was coming close to severing my spinal cord.
Nothing was working, till a doctor tried a hormone treatment no one used much anymore, and the cancer turned and retreated, snarling. It remains sluggish but active. Every so often, it rears its head; when it does, we switch treatments and it slides back down. In that way, I stay alive.
I tell them: you just don’t know.
Two and a half years after the Stage 4 diagnosis, I confessed to my mother that the doctors had said I had two years to live, tops. I’d kept this information to myself because if you say it, it’s true. I told her this laughing, as if we were trading preposterous stories. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to hold your breath if you’re going to make that deadline,” she replied, in her slow Southern drawl when I gave my previously stated expiration date.
I spent the next five years holding my breath, then did the same for another five. I enacted every New Year’s resolution, past and future, all at once. Quit work that had grown stale and became a writer. Wrote a book. Went to India on assignment, fell in love with the language that was swirling around me, went back to live for a year and learn Hindi. Didn’t realize the reason I’d come to dislike that hyperbolically overachieving Lance Armstrong was that his behavior was too familiar. Take a nap, Lance! I’d think to myself, though in truth I couldn’t either.
But if I was verging on radical levels of life consumption, I had a reason: No one had told me I wasn’t going to die soon. About 12 years out, my doctor finally did.
There’s a small subcategory of people with Stage 4 breast cancer, it turned out, who live for years and years. “Twenty. Thirty,” said my doctor, George Raptis. This group constitutes about 2 percent of all cases. Doctors can’t predict who will fall into this category. They can’t say you’re in it till you’re in it — till you’ve racked up the necessary miles.
The reason they can’t is that for all the pink-ribbon hoopla, despite the hundreds of millions that have been poured into breast cancer research, hardly anyone has looked into the why of long-distance survival; not one doctor has specialized in this field.
Here’s pretty much the sum of collective knowledge: People in this group tend to have disease that has spread to the bone (as opposed to lung or liver, say) and feeds on estrogen. They tend to do well on hormone treatments. End of commonly known story.
But as Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told me, you can also find women whose breast cancer spread to organs other than bone, for whom hormone therapy did exactly nothing, who had their lesions surgically excised and who have been free of cancer for 30 years. None of these women could have expected to live.
You just don’t know, and neither, unfortunately, does the medical field.
One reason, as the breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love told me, is that “many clinical trials are funded by the drug companies to run for five years,” obviously not enough if you’re investigating long-term survivors. But through her institute, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, she has begun to conduct research.
Dr. Love said she was inspired by a colleague who told her that in World War II, aviation experts focused on planes that went down until someone said, “Why aren’t we studying the planes that stay up in the air?” By no means a reflexive optimist, she thinks there’s hope we’ll find a cure.
On the Web site, I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.
Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.
I write to them (to myself) that of course this is tough: the waiting to see if the shadows are multiplying, the physical pain, the bouts with terrible blackness.
“But there can be joy in this life, too,” I say, “and that’s so important to remember. This disease does not invalidate us. This past year, I’ve had the joy of falling in love with my sister’s kids, who live states away and whom I hadn’t had the chance to know. I’ve had a second book come out, one I worked on for eight years, about going to live in India with Stage 4 cancer. I’ve had so many moments of joy this year, but when I’m in blackness, I forget about those.” Then I ask them to write and tell me about theirs, and lights begin to flash.
“Had a pajama party with my oldest friend, laughing through the night in matching pajamas about old times.”
“Came in second in a bridge tournament.”
“I went on a wonderful camping trip with my family.”
“Seeing my older daughter grow taller than me. She’s now 5-9.”
One thing I don’t ever think to say: When I was told I had a year or two, I didn’t want anything one might expect: no blow-out trip to the Galápagos, no perfect meal at Alain Ducasse, no defiant red Maserati. All I wanted was ordinary life back, for ordinary life, it became utterly clear, is more valuable than anything else.
I don’t think to say it, and I never will. The women on the site already know that.

Katherine Russell Rich is the author of “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language” and “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — and Back.”

Poets of the everyday

“If your daily life seems of no account, don’t blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its treasures. For the creative artist there is no impoverishment and no worthless place.” — Rilke

I’ve been thinking about these words since I first read them a couple of weeks ago. What does it mean to be a poet of daily life? I often wish I were more creative, wish I possessed whatever spark of genius and imagination it takes to write fiction, to paint the landscape outside my window, to transform a garden bed into a tapestry of color or a fleeting moment into a poem.

And yet, much as I may aspire to make art, on a typical day the most creative thing I do is make dinner. I may practice yoga, talk intimately with a friend, do a good deed, or clean the bathroom – none of which strikes me as being very “artistic.” But Rilke seems to suggest that even such humble tasks can be creative endeavors, so long as they are done with care. If we are truly paying attention, then perhaps life itself becomes a work of art. We call forth the treasures of our ordinary, everyday lives by noticing, by cherishing, by appreciating the beauty that is right in front of us. Which is to say that, viewed in the right way, through the right eyes, everything is extraordinary: the slant of honeyed sun falling across the floor, the speckled globe of a pear ripening on the sill, the orderly profusion of pottery mugs on a shelf, the rise and fall of voices in conversation around the dinner table, the November moon sailing through bare treetops at dusk.

This month, I’ve been most deeply inspired by the collaboration between three women I’ve never met and probably never will, and yet whose lives have come to feel interwoven with my own. The connection began with an email from a woman in Germany who had read “The Gift of an Ordinary Day,” and had the idea to begin photographing daily scenes from her own “ordinary life.” She invited two friends to join her. Each day or so, the women share intimate, unguarded glimpses of their lives in Upper Frankonia, Munich Bavaria, and the Island of Ruegen in Estonia: a foggy morning, a basket of laundry, chickens in the yard, a child at play, an orchid on a window sill. I study these images in search of the women who create them, sensing kindred spirits, like-minded souls, deep affinity.

What began for me as an interesting coincidence – a reader in Germany had somehow found her way to my book! – has come to feel like a spiritual connection that exists beyond barriers of time and place and language. Every morning when I turn on my computer, I’m grateful for these glimpses into lives that may seem perfectly “ordinary” to the women experiencing them but that are, to my American eyes, exotic and beautiful and, yes, poetic. I am honored to be invited in, and I am reminded to look more deeply into the unnoticed nooks and crannies of my own life, to illuminate them with attention and gratitude.

In the garden of our imaginations, we sow and nurture the reality of our lives. What we see, what we choose to notice, grows in value and in beauty because it is beloved. Thanks to the exquisitely graceful, generous work of three strangers, I feel a more intimate connection to my own quiet life in the New Hampshire countryside. And I am reminded, too, of the deep and mysterious connections between us all. We are all human beings sharing this blessed, fragile planet, caretakers of both people and place. Performing the humble tasks of ordinary life with love, we become poets of the everyday, calling forth the treasures that sustain our spirits and feed our souls. And what could be more creative, or more necessary, than that?

To visit A Glimpse of an Ordinary Day: three women, three lives, three locations, click Here.

The treasure of an ordinary day

It was the softest of mornings, the quietest of sunrises, the loveliest day to step out into. I cherish these September days — the silky air, the damp, sweet scent of summer succumbing to fall. I walked across the wet grass, sat on a rock, and watched the mists drift across the valley, the sky brighten, a single bird soaring high, silhouetted against the sky. Never do I appreciate the beauty of home more than on a day when I have to leave it.

I type these words in an airport terminal, waiting for my delayed flight to Atlanta, where I’m giving a talk tomorrow on “the treasure of an ordinary day.” These invitations still catch me off guard; the idea that someone would think of me as a public speaker, as a person with enough wisdom to impart that my appearance is worth organizing an event around. But I’m learning to trust the people who ask, to gather some thoughts, and to go where I’m wanted.

Of course, I have nothing to offer those who come to hear me speak that every one of us doesn’t know already. The themes are plain and simple: That life is precious. That we already have everything we need. That we can choose to be grateful. To see what’s right in front of us. To be in the present moment. To slow down, rather than racing so fast through our own lives that we miss them.

I also know how hard it is to remember what we already know. If you’re like me, you probably have to remind yourself, over and over again: to notice where you are, to accept what is, to love that. Sitting still helps. Coming to a stop and allowing my busy, wild mind to be at rest is the only way I’ve found to be truly mindful. It’s why, after years of not meditating, I finally do. Walking helps, too. It’s why, although I love to run, I also spend hours each week walking alone on the empty roads near my house, allowing my thoughts to drift and noticing everything there is to notice.

Last week, I spent a few days alone at a friend’s tiny, secluded cabin. There was no internet, no opportunity to toggle back and forth, as I tend to do at home, from e-mail to a friend’s latest blog post to my own stop-and-go writing to the most popular stories in the New York Times. With nothing to do but sit and write, I sat and wrote. With no company to keep but my own, I got back in touch with a deeper, quieter part of myself. With no to-do list to whittle away at or schedule to keep, I felt the expansiveness of an hour, an afternoon, a day. Time became generous.

I tried to carry some of that spaciousness home with me. To remember my own capacity for quiet, focused attention, whether I’m alone in a cabin or standing at a podium in front of a room full of strangers. I can react to events, get carried away by stress, allow myself to be distracted and distractible. Or I can simply do the next thing that needs to be done, with care and commitment and faith in the rightness of things as they are. Without making a fuss. This is the way I want to live. And yes, I do need to keep reminding myself.

The photo my husband took at dawn this morning captures the fleeting beauty of the moment. It says “peace” to me. It’s easy for me to be grateful when I’m sitting in my own backyard, feeling blessed to have these gentle mountains as my neighbors.

Now, held captive in an over-air-conditioned terminal, with CNN blasting away, boarding announcements crackling over the loudspeaker, and the smell of pizza in the air, gratitude is a little more challenging to practice. But it occurs to me that living mindfully isn’t just about sitting and meditating, or about appreciating a beautiful sunrise. The real practice comes when we are called to keep going even when things aren’t exactly going our way. It’s using what’s at hand, and being ok with that. And so time is generous here, too. I have hours and hours to myself, with no place to go and nothing to do but wait for my delayed plane to arrive at the gate. Annoyance, or grace. The choice, of course, is mine. Perhaps the treasure of an ordinary day is always right in front of my nose; all I have to do is decide to see it.

Cookies

A few months ago my friend Margaret Roach gave away a cookbook on her site A Way to Garden. I read her description of Heidi Swanson’s beautiful recipes, considered the lush photo on the book jacket, and gave in — as I rarely do — to an impulsive on-line purchase. (Apologies to my much-loved and frequented local bookstore!) I wasn’t going to wait an entire week to see if I might win a copy of Super Natural Every Day; I ordered the book that very moment and two days later I had it in my hands. Which is how this spring has come to be, in our house, The Time of Those Amazing Cookies.

There has been so much going on here that I haven’t written about — the school year ending, boys coming home (and leaving again), family dinners, countless meals and loads of laundry and breakfasts that go on for hours, a piano concert by Henry, laughter and tears, good times with good friends, forsythia and lilacs and irises and peonies blooming and passing in their turn, hot days and cold ones, walks in the woods and runs on the bike-path. We’ve put almost a thousand miles on the car, driving to New York City, to the Berkshires to pick Jack up from school, to Maine to deliver Henry to his summer job, to Boston to deliver Jack to his.

It seems that, no matter how early I get up in the morning or how late I stay up at night, I can’t quite manage to place a margin around these days. And I haven’t written a word. (I figure that hasty e-mails and entries in my calendar don’t count as writing.) Every minute, I say to myself, justifying my lack of output, has been spoken for, busy, packed.

I’ve loved this time of family comings and goings, have loved having both boys at home and asleep in their own beds, “each fate,” as Sharon Olds has written, “like a vein of abiding mineral not discovered yet.” I’ve loved being fully engaged right where I am, as wife and mother and aunt and friend and gardener; have loved each and every one of these spectacular, lengthening days of June.

At the same time, I find myself a bit in awe of, even a bit envious of, those who feel as if they aren’t quite living unless they’re writing. I think of these people as the “real” writers, the ones who weave their writing right into the fabric of their days, no matter what’s going on around them. Real writers are those who are fed and sustained by the daily process of turning the raw stuff of life into shapely, meaningful prose. I wish I was one of those writers — faster, more disciplined, more determined, more productive, more — and this is the one that’s really hard to admit — courageous.

For when it comes right down to it, I know I could find or make the time to write more often than I do. It’s not really hours that I lack so much as the confidence to sit down and come face-to-face with myself. To commit my thoughts to an empty page and then to say, “This is ok, this is enough, this does the trick.” Sometimes, I just don’t have what it takes to wrestle with my own swirling mass of emotions, emotions that I can’t ever seem to adequately translate into words, especially words that can be shared.

In these last weeks I’ve sipped tea with a friend who is facing major surgery, prognosis unknown. I’ve watched my older son sit down at a piano in front of a hundred people and play a gorgeous Rachmaninoff prelude from memory. I’ve taken dawn walks with my husband and gathered around a table at my parents’ house with our entire extended family. I’ve listened in while Henry read a book to his four-year-old cousin and while Jack sang to himself in the shower. There have been sights that have left me breathless: a bluebird perched on the edge of the birdbath, a hummingbird trembling at the lip of a petunia, an alabaster peony unfurling its petals in the heat of an afternoon. And there have been moments that have made my heart swell: watching Jack walk through the door of his old high school (the one he left after sophomore year) to take SAT IIs last weekend; sitting down to dinner on the porch and holding hands with my husband and two sons as we recited the grace we’ve said together since kindergarten days; listening to Jack play his guitar; saying good-bye to Henry for the summer.

In the midst of all these comings and goings, all these meals cooked and cleaned up after, all this being and doing and celebrating, a letter arrived on Monday from a reader whose twelve-year-old son died in an accident two weeks ago. She wrote to me to say that at his memorial service last weekend she asked her best friend to read a passage from my book, a paragraph about missing, most of all, the perfectly ordinary days.

All week, her letter has haunted me, this mother’s unfathomable loss running like a quiet undercurrent through my own busyness. “Your words are helping me heal,” she wrote, “and I wanted to thank you. The memories are all I have now and I thank you for showing me how to look at life a little differently.”

Writing, for me anyway, is a slow, scary, private process. Lately, I’ve been unable to summon the part of myself that believes in the worth of what I do. I wish, for my own sake, that I’d tried to capture some of the fleeting, ordinary, yet incredibly precious moments of these last weeks, for I sense the days of togetherness already slipping away as we settle into summer schedules that keep us mostly apart. But then, for the hundredth time, I ask myself if there is anything at all I can say that I haven’t said before, or that someone else hasn’t said already, but better.

The lesson, the great, overarching truth that I keep repeating even as I learn it again and again myself, is that the sacred is in the ordinary. That it is to be found right here, right now, in our own daily lives. In our most inconsequential yet most holy connections with our children, our loved ones, our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends. In the the kitchen, the bedroom, the office, our very own backyards.

I do know that. I think that nearly everything I write is some variation on this theme. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m the only one who needs to keep hearing it, and whether, in fact, I really have run out of things to say to the rest of the world. This week, a heartbreaking, generous letter from a grieving mother reminded me of this simple, essential fact all over again. It made me think that perhaps the most important lessons do bear repeating after all. And that there are as many ways to be attentive to our lives as there are ways to pray, to grieve, to celebrate.

I am still hoping for courage. I have a new book to write, an essay due next week, guest blogs to post. And instead of getting down to work, I find myself grating chocolate, chopping apricots, baking batch after batch of cookies to share. Baking, feeding the people I love, I grant myself reprieve from the struggle to find words, words that might begin to respond to another family’s unfathomable loss or that could possibly do justice to the preciousness, the pain, the beauty, the fragility, the wonder of things just as they are.

And that brings me back to where I began here. When I’m floundering, when I lose my way on the page, I retreat to the safe haven of my kitchen counter. I am not always brave enough or self-disciplined enough to write. But I can always cook. And once I began making Heidi Swanson’s not-too-sweet but utterly extraordinary ginger cookies a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stop. It feels almost as if these cookies have expressed everything I haven’t managed to write about lately: love, empathy, joy, gratitude, pride, hope. I make batch after batch of the dough, pop it into the refrigerator, and bake more as needed. I brought ginger cookies to a friend facing her first round of radiation for breast cancer, to a special dinner where they complemented the earliest strawberries and rhubarb of the season, to my parents’ house where my little nephew definitively pronounced them “the best.” I served these cookies to my writing students and to friends who dropped by for a spur-of-the-moment supper. I made over two hundred of them for Henry’s concert, and a dozen to console Jack while he watched his favored team, the Mavericks, go down in defeat to the Miami Heat. If you have seen me in the last month, chances are I’ve handed you a warm cookie.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do,” Rumi reminds us. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Loving this life, cherishing these perfectly ordinary, radiantly beautiful summer days, I do aspire to be attentive, to be thankful for all that is. Sometimes I kneel and kiss the ground by sitting at my desk, fingers hovering over this keyboard. Sometimes, I just bake cookies.

If you were plunked down in my kitchen right now, I’d turn the oven on, start scooping teaspoonsful of fragrant dough onto the pan, and ask you to tell me the news of your day. Instead, I’ll do the next best thing — share Heidi Swanson’s lovely recipe and give you a link to her popular and wonderfully inviting blog. Meanwhile, if you decide to treat yourself to the book — and I encourage you to do so — make sure to try her amazing Baked Oatmeal, the Mostly Not Potato Salad, and the nutty, orange-scented Granola, which is hands-down the best I’ve ever tasted. (Yes, I’ve pretty much been cooking nonstop here.)

Heidi Swanson’s Ginger Cookies

1/2 cup large-grain raw or turbinado sugar
6 ounces bittersweet 70% cacao dark chocolate
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter cut into small cubes
1/4 cup unsulphured blackstrap molasses
2/3 cup fine grain natural cane sugar
2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 large egg, well beaten
1 cup plump dried apricots, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350, place racks in the top and bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper or a Silpat mat, and place the large-grain sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.
Finely chop the chocolate bar into 1/8-inch pieces, more like shavings really.
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt.
Heat the butter in a saucepan until it is just barely melted. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses, sugar, and fresh ginger. The mixture should be warm, but not hot at this point, if it is hot to the touch let it cool a bit. Whisk in the egg. Now pour this over the flour mixture, add apricots, and stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate. Chill for 30 minutes, long enough for the dough to firm up a bit.
I like these cookies tiny, barely bite-sized, so I scoop out the dough in exact, level tablespoons. I then tear those pieces of dough in two before rolling each 1/2 tablespoon of dough into a ball shape. From there, grab a small handful of the big sugar you set aside earlier and roll each ball between your palms to heavily coat the outside of each dough ball. Place dough a few inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until cookies puff up, darken a bit, and get quite fragrant. (In my oven, 8 minutes is just perfect.)
Makes roughly 4 dozen.
Prep time: 30 min – Cook time: 10 min