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Having been on both sides of the advance-blurb hustle, I know it can be just as awkward to be asked to read an unpublished manuscript as it is to be the hapless author down on one knee, apologizing in advance for having to make such a request.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

Quiet work

Remember that poster in your high school guidance counselor’s office? The one with an airbrushed photo of some generic sunrise and a caption that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”? At seventeen, I really did not want to hear that.

This morning at dawn I stepped outside. The sunrise was spectacular. The first words that popped into my head were, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The birds were singing like crazy. My husband was already down in the field, throwing a tennis ball for Gracie. And my heart was full to overflowing with gratitude. The first day of the rest of my life seemed like a very good reason to stand in one place for a while, watch the sun climb up into the sky, listen to the wild symphony going on outside, and give thanks for everything.

Yesterday at 2:08 in the afternoon, I hit the SEND button and emailed the last chapter of the manuscript I’ve been working on for the last year to my editor. It took a little while for the fact of that to sink in: I did it.

I walked downstairs in a daze, went outside and sat down in a lawn chair next to Steve. And then I burst into tears. The transition from writing to being done with writing pretty much undid me. There was the relief of making my deadline, of course, but it was inextricably intertwined with the despair of knowing that the finished product is so much less than the beautiful creation I envisioned in my imagination all those months ago, before I actually got down to the discouraging business of trying to translate experience into words.

While I’ve been sequestered upstairs in Henry’s bedroom, surrounded by his old Red Sox posters and various drafts and file cards, the seasons changed. I missed most of winter, and barely noticed the arrival of spring. Yesterday, with the finish line in sight, I sat on Henry’s bed with my laptop in front of me for seven hours without even looking up. When I finally ventured out into my own front yard yesterday afternoon, it felt as if I was returning home from an extended trip overseas, or was just recovering from a debilitating illness. I’d been gone a long time. Now, suddenly, with one tap of the keys, I was back. Re-entry was just a little rocky. All I could think was, “I’m done and I failed.”

My husband wiped my tears away and gave me a sweet letter he’d written in the morning, when he could see the end was near. And then he gave me Wendell Berry’s “Collected Poems,” the most perfect gift for that tumultuous moment. I opened the book and the first poem I came to was this one, called “Like Snow.”

Like Snow

Suppose we did our work
Like the snow, quietly, quietly,
Leaving nothing out.

Such solid, simple words. Such a fine thing to aspire to. I wonder why it is that we humans suffer so with our fears and doubts about not being enough. We do the best we can, give all we have to give, and then we turn a harsh eye on the beauty of our efforts.

Today, on this first day of the rest of my life, I have practiced doing my work like the snow. Quietly, quietly.

Practice

The theme of my life this winter can be summed up in a word: practice. Two-thirds of the way through a memoir, with another four chapters to go and a deadline less than two months away, I have made a commitment to writing practice.

But I am a slow writer, never certain of the way forward, and so I have no choice but to practice patience.

Waiting for words to come, trusting that if I stay here long enough, the next sentence will find its way home to me, requires a certain kind of faith. Faith in mystery and faith in the process — and so I practice faith, too. Faith, it turns out, takes quite a lot of practice.

Yoga practice makes my writing practice possible; in order to sit for hours on end, I must first get up and really move.

Breathing practice fuels the yoga practice; without the union of breath and movement, yoga is just exercise, and I need a little more sustenance from my practice these days than a few leg lifts would provide.

Meditation practice guides me back into my writing, for before I can write so much as a line, I must listen. And in order to listen, I must practice stillness.

Stillness is a challenge, possible only when I practice discipline, for stillness is so not my nature. Discipline practice returns me to my yoga mat day after day, and then it hustles me right back upstairs, to my spot against the bedpillows and my laptop balanced on my knees, and the words on the page, and the view out the window.

I look at the dark curve of mountains against the winter sky, hear the whoosh of wind curling around the corner of the house, the ticking clock, the soft, steady breath of my dog asleep on the rug, and I practice gratitude, for really, what could be better than this – this life, this moment, this practice of pausing and noticing and saying “thank you”?

I used to think of my life in terms of the various roles and responsibilities that made me me: there was motherhood, house work and editing work and writing work, marriage, exercise, spirituality, friendship. Lots of expectations to juggle and jobs to tackle and experiences to either embrace or endure or reject. And never, ever, enough time to fit it all in or get it all done.

Writing was always the first thing to go. How could I sit alone in a room typing words on a screen when there were so many more “important” things I should be doing instead?

But with only a slight shift in imagination, everything has changed. I’ve come to see my life for what it is — not some elaborate story I’ve told myself a thousand times, but simply this: an opportunity to practice.

And suddenly, there is plenty of room and all the time in the world for me to do the only thing I need to do — keep practicing.

A little background: I wrote this post quickly, at the invitation of memoirist and writing teacher extraordinare Marion Roach, who is guest-editing this week over at SheWrites, a terrific site that empowers and informs women writers. (You can read her brilliant “Memoir Manifesto,” in which this little piece is included, here.) When I read Marion’s email, asking if I wanted to contribute something, my first impulse was to say, “Thanks, but no, I’ve got way too much on my plate already.” I was actually about to type just that into my “reply” box, when this started to come out instead. I think it is the first time I’ve ever written anything without thinking about it first. The first time words have ever “just come” to me. (I hear this happens quite often for OTHER writers, but not to me, not ever.) And yet, surprise, there it was. An answer. An affirmative answer rather than the “thanks but no thanks” I was intending to write. And this, I guess, is the benefit of practice. Do anything long enough, regularly enough, and eventually it starts to do you. Even writing practice.

A word about “Unimaginable,” last week’s post: Your comments made me cry. They made my heart overflow with gratitude. They reaffirmed everything I already believe in and cherish about the connections between women, between writers and readers, between friends who have never met. I wanted to answer every single one personally — but I also realized that I couldn’t; all I can do, for now, anyway, is keep writing and hope that you understand. I read every one, though, and I particularly loved the way conversations even sprung up between you, readers reaching out and finding one another right here, in this space. That is nothing less than a dream come true. Thank you.

And finally, in answer to some questions I got about about the Wholeheartedness Playlist widget: If you receive this blog as an email, you won’t see the widget. It’s on the website. Just click on the title in your email, and it’ll take you to my website, where the playlist can be found on the bottom left sidebar. (It’s also a bit easier on the eyes to read the post on the website!) Many thanks, and a Happy Wholehearted Valentines Day to all!

Slow Journey

I’ve spent the last three weeks in one place doing one thing. And, although I will leave my mother’s house two days from now with a stack of manuscript pages, I will also leave with a great deal more knowledge about how I get in my own way.

There are people, many of them dear friends of mine, who can’t wait to sit down alone and shape their thoughts and feelings into sentences and paragraphs. I so wish I were one of them. There are some who have learned to trust their creative process, others who entertain a muse, some who simply feel most alive when they are creating. I am not any of these people, either.

For me, writing is a slow, halting journey from experience to thought to written word. It is a wonder I do it at all, given how inefficiently I travel, and how adept I am at coming up with countless more “productive” ways to spend my time. Show me a sink full of dirty dishes to address, or a few emails to answer, or an 8 a.m. yoga class, and all my mental synapses go into flight and alight mode. My house is never cleaner than when I have a deadline, my yoga practice never stronger than when I’m in the middle of a writing project. Here in Florida, in my mom’s back bedroom, flight is not an option. I came all the way down here to sit in a chair and fight my own little battle with myself.

Last week my friend, the extraordinary (and extraordinarily prolific) author Beth Kephart wrote this about the craft of memoir: “We are speaking about how we shape what we have lived, what we have seen. About how we honor what we love and defend what we believe in. Makers of memoir dwell with ideas and language, with themselves. They counter complexity with clarity. They locate a story inside the contradictions of their lives—the false starts and the presumed victories, the epiphanies that rub themselves raw nearly as soon as they are stated.”

Dwelling with myself. That really is my challenge. It is so much easier, so much more tempting, to turn away, to get busy doing something else, to skim along on the surface of my life instead of stopping, sitting still, going inside, and going deep. To write, or to read, about the inner life is to believe that what we think and how we feel matters. To be a friend of memoir is to stake a claim for the significance of the examined life. It is to say that our inner narratives are as important as the activities and achievements, the successes and failures, that fill our days. It is to say that locating the story within the contradictions of our lives is a worthy pursuit.

“We read,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “to remember that we are not alone.” It is also why we write. To remember that we have much to learn from our most difficult conversations with ourselves and with each other. And that in sharing the truth of who we are and how we struggle, we remind another struggling someone that they do not journey alone.

Thanks to all of you who contributed suggestions to the “Wholeheartedness” playlist. Next week my in-house tech support son, Henry, will be home. Together, we’ll compile the list and post it here. Till then, feel free to add your favorite songs. (I’ve been listening to the ones I didn’t know and I have to say, I think we’re on to something: it’s a great list of heart-opening, uplifting music!)