solitude

photo 13“Solitude is the soul’s holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.”

There comes a moment.

You love your life and the precious people in it. And yet, suddenly the very intimacy you cherish feels like a burden you can no longer carry. You want to see yourself as a person who is competent and sturdy and kind. And yet, today you are able to be none of these things.

You can’t plan one more meal or push the cart through the frigid produce aisles one more time or carry one more bag of groceries in from the car. You can’t cook another balanced dinner or sit at the table and have one more meaningful conversation. You can’t anticipate or meet one more need, or set one more thing to rights.

You want to sleep alone in a narrow, clean bed and wake up in silence and let things go their own way.  You want to take a vacation from worrying and fretting and fixing. You want to have breakfast at ten and skip lunch and eat salad from the serving bowl for dinner — with your book propped in front of you. You want to take a walk at your own pace, slowly. You long for a conversation in which the only one you have to listen to is the small quiet voice inside, the voice that speaks without words.

You imagine what a relief it would be to spend a whole day without talking. Without cleaning or washing or weeding or folding anything. Without make-up, without good cheer, without a to-do list, without getting in the car, without reaching for your wallet or your phone or the dog leash or the sponge.

You wonder if anyone else hits this wall. The wall of too much. The hard unforgiving place of feeling crowded and tired and overwhelmed. Of knowing you simply cannot accomplish all that needs to be done. Or make good on all the promises you’ve made to others. Or live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself.

You find yourself imagining solitude, craving it. The dark quiet cave of aloneness beckons.

And you think about where you might go, just for a little while, to privately fall apart and put yourself back together again, without causing anyone you love too much fuss or inconvenience.

You email a friend who has a cabin on a country road, the place you went once before to grieve the loss of a friend and to write the first, halting chapter of a book you weren’t sure you’d be able to finish. [continue…]

Quiet days

 

twilight in FloridaaYou have traveled too fast over false ground;

Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up

To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain

When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,

Taking time to open the well of color

That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone

Until its calmness can claim you.

           ― John O’Donohue, from “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted”

Hard as it is for my mom to be away from her fourteen-year-old cocker spaniel for a few hours, let alone three days, she couldn’t bear the thought of not being present for her sister’s grandson’s wedding up north this weekend.  My Aunt Gloria’s been gone for three years.  But this winter, my mother says, has been harder than the first one without her; she is missing her big sister more these days, not less.  Being with her extended family, staying in a hotel with my dad in Newport, watching the first grandson take a bride – none of that would fill in the hole carved by loss, but it would make her feel a bit closer to her sister and remind her she wasn’t alone in missing her.  Of course, she was torn between going and staying home with her dog.

“I’ll come down there and take care of Justin, so you can go to the wedding,” I promised her weeks ago, happy to fill in some empty March days on my calendar with a trip to Florida and grateful for any excuse to have a visit with my mom.

“Words Justin knows (but can’t hear),” she wrote in the extensive care-and-feeding manual she left for me.  “Sit. Stay. Off.”  Justin is sweet-natured, deaf, and, above all else, a creature of routine: up to pee at 5 am, breakfast at 5:03, back to bed til 7, dinner at 4:30, a walk at dusk, playtime, bed.  During the day, between periodic call-of-nature visits to a small circle of bleached crab grass in the backyard, he sleeps.

“I’m looking forward to this,” I assured my mother as she packed her suitcase on Friday.  “I’ve been going nonstop since December. Three days alone, with no one who needs me for anything, will be a luxury.”

I meant it.  It feels as if the only conversation I haven’t had lately is one with myself.  So, I had my own plans for the weekend:  disconnect totally and do nothing.  I would read, think, write in my journal. Allow my soul to welcome me back.

What a relief it would be, I was certain, to just close up shop on my life for a couple of days.  I vowed to take a technology holiday — leave my laptop asleep in its case, my phone on vibrate, my emails unread, incoming texts unanswered, my Facebook status unchanged, my Amazon sales figures unchecked.

Yesterday, all alone in my mother’s house, I erected my cathedral of quiet.

And then, moment by moment, I struggled to live inside it.  All day long, I fought against the uneasy, unfamiliar discomfort of keeping company with my own silent, non-doing self.  How humbling, to realize I’ve lately grown so accustomed to distraction and busyness that it’s a challenge to simply stop in one place and be, to inhabit an empty space in time without giving in to the impulse to fill it up.

For months now, I’ve been in high gear, doing not only my normal every-day stuff (shopping, cooking, cleaning, mothering) but also the adrenaline-rush stuff of traveling, giving readings and talks, connecting, and promoting —  what I’ve come to think of as the job of being a person who’s written a book.  And I’ve loved just about every minute of my own thrilling Magical Journey.  It’s been a privilege to visit bookstores all over the country and a joy to hear from readers, to receive their thoughtful, heartfelt letters, to meet new friends and reconnect with old ones.

At the same time, I have to wonder:  have I become so used to being connected somewhere, to something, all the time, that making a deliberate choice to unplug and shut up, even for a day or two, has become a challenge?

“Stop,” I kept reminding myself yesterday, each time I reflexively reached for my phone, “just to check my email,” until at last I just stuck it out of sight in a drawer.

Pausing just to be sounds simple enough in theory, but it can be wildly hard. Making a choice to inhabit a windswept interior emptiness rather than trying to stuff it full of mental furniture feels awkward, even a little scary.  “Is this all there is?”  my busy mind kept demanding, casting about for something, anything, to do or worry about or fixate upon.

Having grown used to velocity as my automatic response to complexity, I’ve become pretty efficient when it comes to getting things done, but somewhat less graceful, apparently, in repose.  Give me a to-do list, and I know how to power through to the bottom line.  But even competence comes at a cost.  Give me a day without an internet connection or a deadline or a self-imposed goal to be met or a finish line to cross, and all my self-doubts and vulnerabilities come rushing out to meet me, jostling for position, demanding to be seen and heard.

I floundered around for a while, at odds with myself, rubbed raw by the rough edges of my own solitude.  It was hard to sit still, hard even to focus deeply and completely on the pages of the book I very much wanted to read.  I did some yoga and tried to match slow steady breaths to slow steady movements.  I took the dog for a walk, frittered the hours away, spoke to no one.  I didn’t try to get Justin to read my lips, as my mom does, or engage in doggie small talk he couldn’t hear, just to break the silence.  I resisted the urge to email a friend, to text my sons, call my husband, or turn on the TV and catch up on Downton Abbey.

In the end, I stretched out in a lawn chair, put down my book, and gazed up into the turquoise expanse of sky. Finally, time slowed down.  Finally, I felt something inside me begin to soften and settle, to release and let go.

This morning, I’ve been reading a memoir called “Until I Say Good-bye,” by Susan Spencer-Wendell, who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago, at the age of forty-four.  Knowing she had, at best, one good year of life left, Susan made a deliberate choice: to plant a garden of memories for her beloved husband and their three young children, and to cultivate joy in whatever time remained for her.

She wrote her book in three months, painstakingly using her one good finger to type into the Notes function on her iPhone.  By the time she was finished, she had lost her mobility, her voice, nearly everything except her courage, her consciousness, and her conviction that although she had no control over her illness, she could control the attitude she brought to her approaching death.  Certain the greatest gift she can give her family is her own acceptance of her fate, Susan is facing the end head on; as her book makes its way in the world, she is preparing, with little fanfare, to leave it.

Last week, following up on an earlier  interview conducted a few months ago when she could still speak, Scott Simon asked Susan how she is doing.  Her written reply to him was simple, straightforward, tremendously moving: “As well as can be expected. My body and voice become weaker every single day, but my mind becomes mightier and more quiet. You do indeed hear more in silence.”

She is right, of course.  And so, with gratitude now, and a good bit more ease than I felt yesterday, I sit outside at my mother’s quiet house, beneath the rustling palms, and watch the sun go down. I receive John O’Donohue’s words of blessing into my being, and feel what it means to imitate the habit of twilight.  I wonder whether, if I abide here long enough, a well of color might somehow open within me, too, just as the evening sky itself grows diaphanous at last light, the clouds translucent veils of rose and gold and mauve.

 

Magical Journey News

On the web

I never thought much about how my yoga practice has shaped my work as a writer, and vice versa, until Kate Hopper at Motherhood and Words, asked me some probing questions about both craft and practice in this lovely interview.

Other recent interviews and blog posts I’ve loved are:

Ali Edwards’s beautiful review. Click here.

An interview HERE, with Harriet Cabelly at her inspiring and rapidly expanding Rebuild Your Life site.

Amy Makechnie’s  brand new and engaging “fascinating person” series,  HERE.

 

Appearances

There’s a bit more magical journeying in my future, and a few new events on the calendar that I’m very excited about — each one an opportunity to meet wonderful, like-minded women, to listen and share our stories, and to reweave and reaffirm our connections with one another.

Next:  A reading and conversation at the Annapolis Book Festival on April 13 with Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of The Last Best Cure.  (More about this terrific book, and a give-away, here very soon!) In the meantime, do visit Donna’s website and get to know her there.

It seems to me that the best book conversations (well, the best conversations in general) are the ones that take place over a good meal. So my writing buddy Margaret Roach and I were thrilled to be invited to speak and read at a luncheon hosted by The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT, on Friday, April 19.  Details to follow; in the meantime, you can call the store for more info.

I first “met” Priscilla Warner right here last June, when she left a comment on a blog post I’d written.  I immediately read her wonderful memoir Learning to Breathe, she read my manuscript of Magical Journey and encouraged me through every step of the final revision, and pretty soon it felt as if we’d been friends forever — even though we STILL haven’t ever laid eyes on each other.  That will change next month, when I go to Larchmont, NY, to speak at the Public Library  on Sunday, April 19, at 3:30 — an event Priscilla helped organize, in part, so I can finally come visit her.

Other spring-time journeys:

Margaret and I are doing our very last bookstore “duet” at the Concord Bookshop on Sunday, April 28, at 3.  (Think daffodils, home made cookies, and wide-ranging conversation– everything from the thorny questions of midlife to composting secrets revealed!)

I’ll be back at Ann Patchett’s beautiful Nashville bookstore Parnassus on Thursday, May 2, at 7 pm.

And from Nashville, I’ll go straight to Minneapolis for my final two readings this spring: 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.  Minneapolis friends, St. Olaf connections, Twin Cities readers, I want to see you all there! 

As always, HUGE thanks to all of you who are creating this community of like-minded souls and keeping the word of mouth going by writing reviews on Amazon, showing my video to your friends, or sharing my blog posts on your Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  Every week, this newsletter is going out to more people — there are well over 2,ooo subscribers now, but I’d love to widen this circle even more.  My Magical Journey Facebook page, which started with exactly zero followers in November, now has nearly 2500.  (That really DOES feel like magic.)

 

 

Rain Swim

It is the week we look forward to all summer – the rented lake cabin, the family all together under one roof, the familiar routines of idleness. This is August and the lake is northerly, nestled at the foot of mountains, and so we pack sweaters and jeans and socks as well as bathing suits and sunscreen and flip flops. We come prepared, carrying more books than anyone could possibly read in a week, and then we pray for sun.

Yesterday morning I woke early to gentle rain, cool air, clouds blanketing the peaks across the water. As summer draws to its inevitable close, each day feels edged with a scrim of sadness; I’m always greedy for just a little more. Or, if not exactly greedy, at least aware that these golden days are numbered, that a month from now, back at home and yoked into fall schedules, summer swims will already be a memory. And so without thinking it over, I left my sleeping family, slipped out of the warm bed, into my still-damp bathing suit and down to the water.

I wonder if there is any place more solitary than the middle of a lake in the rain at dawn. Alone in that chill, dark water, shrouded by mist and suspended in a dance of rain drops, I disappeared from myself. What a relief it is, to leave the mind and all its small preoccupations behind and to swim far from shore, out into the big picture. Lake, mountains, sky, rain – and me, one small, insignificant human body treading water within this vast, mysterious universe. I watched my pale arms moving before me, allowed my breath to carry me along on its rhythmic journey, felt the water’s buoyant embrace, and offered up my humble prayer of thanksgiving: what a blessing it is to be here, a single note in this gloriously complex hymn that is our natural world.

There were, finally, scents of breakfast drifting across the water, the dense, civilized smells of bacon and coffee summoning me back to life on land. My skin pricked with cold. The rain fell in sheets. Yet it was with some reluctance that I turned around and began breast-stroking toward shore. “Without a big perspective, we are only half awake to our life,” writes Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld. “Lost in a thousand errands, and our small self, we are not truly free.”

It’s not easy, when lost in those errands, to remember the magnificence of this world. But nature’s beauty is always available, if we’re willing to take the first step toward intimacy, to stop what we’re doing and thinking long enough to quiet our minds and open our hearts and go forth.

I didn’t go swimming in the rain in search of anything but one more taste of this waning summer. The moment’s profound teaching caught me by surprise, as much a shock to the system as the first slap of cold water on bare skin: Remember your interconnection with all things. Love the mystery. Be free.

Solitude

“Solitude is the soul’s holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.”

—  Katrina Kenison

It’s the first day I’ve been alone for three weeks.  Henry left for a month in London on Monday.  Then I drove Jack back to school and got home last night in time for a late dinner and bed.  This morning: silence.  I’m feeling a little blue, sad that these weeks of intense family togetherness have come to an end. The to-do list awaits and the house needs a good post-holiday cleaning from top to bottom. No one is asking for pancakes.

I remind myself that my boys are off doing exactly what they should be doing, out in the world.  And I am alone here, with a pile of work put off  until January and  a choice to make.  I can give in to loneliness and letdown as I strip sheets off beds and clean out the refrigerator, or I can allow myself  a little mini-vacation of the spirit, the pleasure of appreciating my own company.  The chance to take a deep breath, begin to catch up with myself, and create something new in this new year.

I tell myself that after a couple of weeks of cooking, talking, negotiating, joking, cajoling, laughing, and just generally focusing all of my time and attention and energy outward, it will feel good to pause and be still.  To turn inward and reconnect with my own quiet center.

And so, feeling a little radical, I even resist the urge to turn on my computer this morning, savoring instead a more complete aloneness than the internet will allow.  I have a cup of coffee, kiss my husband good-bye, do some yoga,  watch the sky brighten.  Gradually, my heart lightens, too.

And then I flip open my laptop, start looking through my e-mail backlog from the last week or so, and find this quote waiting for me, sent by a reader.  “Did you see,” she wrote in her note from December 27, “you were Oprah’s quote of the day.”  Sure enough, there is my name, beneath these words I have no memory of ever writing.

Slowly, it comes back to me.  Ten years ago, I wrote an article for the Oprah magazine about solitude.  This, I realize, is what I must have said back then.  As if I had it all figured out.  It does sound kind of wise and knowing. But this morning, a decade and change later, I’ve had to learn the truth of these words all over again, as if I had never written them at all.

It must just be that we mortals never really get life all figured out.  The brain may be overachieving and whip-smart, but the soul is a remedial, wayward student, forever forgetting yesterday’s lessons.  I’ve always known that one reason I write is to remind myself to do as I say.  Now, I’m also realizing that I have to keep learning and practicing the same things over and over again — silence, patience, acceptance, faith, gratitude for what is — until slowly, bit by bit, what I know to be true becomes who I am.  To say that it’s a process is an understatement.  It is, I suppose, the work of a lifetime.

 

 

Eating alone

I am in New York City for two nights, doing a bit of literary volunteer work.  Today has been a long day, nine hours in a hotel conference room.  By the time our group is released from duty just before six, I’m ready to get outside and seize the last minutes of sunlight on the first day of the year that truly feels like spring.

I walk twenty blocks or so with my coat flapping open, cell phone pressed to my ear like a native, checking in with every family member.  Then I slip my phone into my pocket and watch Times Square grow even brighter as night falls, a vast neon panorama of news and temptation and blandishment.  For a while, it’s fun just to be swept along by the tide of humanity, gazing into shop windows and considering my options.

Not knowing how long my meeting would run, or how tired I’d be after trying to be articulate all day, I haven’t made a plan for the evening.  But now, watching the world go by — families, couples, groups of friends — I feel a little unmoored, wishing for company.  I think about going to a show, scoring a last-minute ticket at the half-price booth, but I’ve been sitting for hours; actually, dinner and bed sound even more appealing.  Time was, I would have given anything to even have such a choice.  Now I wonder if I’m settling for too little, behaving like a boring, middle-aged mother cut adrift, when I should be taking advantage of some big-city experience.

Twenty-five years ago, I was an editor in New York, young and ambitious and poor, putting a life together for myself on a salary of $11,000 a year.  One day during my first few months in the city, my boss paused at my desk around lunch time and asked what I was doing.  “Reading a manuscript,” I said, through a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich.

“I don’t want to see you here, eating in the office,” he admonished, surprising me.  “Your job is to get out there, meet people, and hustle.  The best stuff always happens at lunch.”   In those days, even junior editors had expense accounts, but until Cork Smith gave me a little kick in the butt and told me to pick up the phone and start using mine, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

As it turned out, my publishing lunches kept me from starving.  Knowing I would get a decent meal at noon, which would cost the equivalent of my own food budget for an entire week, I could subsist on a grapefruit and English muffin for breakfast, and a small salad from the Korean grocer on the corner for dinner.  Once a day, I stuffed myself.  If I was careful, I could just manage to pay my bills.

“You certainly eat a lot, for such a small person,” I recall one elderly literary agent observing. No doubt I nodded, demure, not telling her that my next proper meal was twenty-four hours away.

I think of those days now, as I sit down to a solitary Saturday night dinner in a French bistro in midtown Manhattan.  In a year of stepping out of the comfort zone and learning to say “yes,” this is another little first for me: a restaurant meal without the easy company of a spouse or child or friend along to split an entree, make conversation, share the moment, pay the tip.   I have a magazine in my purse, but it’s too dim in the restaurant for reading — no chance of hiding out after all.  The waiter whisks away the other place setting at the table, hands me a menu, and I’m on my own.  I take a quick survey, relieved to spot a middle-aged man nursing a glass of red wine, a single woman at a banquette against the wall, my compatriots in solitude.

The memories of my long-ago weekends in New York are still fresh.  I’d put my sneakers on and walk the city for hours, soaking it in — smells, sounds, images and glimpses of how other people lived. The bustling restaurants and alluring boutiques were way off limits — the Sunday Times was my one big indulgence.  I often wondered what being truly “grown up” would feel like, whether I would ever be one of those casual, perfectly turned out women with the right sunglasses, jacket, and shoes.  Whether I would ever wander into a sidewalk cafe for Sunday brunch, without a thought for how deeply those scrambled eggs would dent my paycheck.  At twenty-five, I was working hard to fake it till I made it, a New Hampshire girl with a passion for books, a mostly empty Rolodex, and a miniscule alcove of an apartment on West 83rd — an address that surprised me every time I wrote it out.

Now, twenty-six years later, I confront the truth:  I will never have the right shoes.   And the “right” sunglasses these days — oversized, bug-like — would look ridiculous on me.  But I also realize that it doesn’t matter much anymore.  One good thing about turning fifty is the realization that we don’t have to impress anybody. No one cares what kind of shoes I wear.

Still, there is a part of me that feels a little exposed and uncomfortable here, claiming a valuable piece of New York real estate — a restaurant table — all to myself.  I order a glass of white wine, and look around. Turns out that the other two solitary diners aren’t alone after all — a delicately beautiful red-haired woman has joined the man, full of apology for her tardiness, and the lone woman’s husband has returned from the restroom. I am the only unaccompanied person in the room.

“We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available,” writes Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Han. “We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”

All of a sudden, it occurs to me that at twenty-five, much as I would have liked a date, I also would have been quite thrilled to eat a restaurant meal alone.  How grateful I would have been back then, to be able to just enjoy my food, without having to act like I knew what I was talking about, or feign interest in some unsaleable first novel.  And so, in an instant, I make a decision:  I will eat this particular meal in a way that allows me to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.   I’m here, I’m alone, and I am going to fully experience the experience. My salad arrives, and I savor every bite of lettuce and warm goat cheese.  I smile at the waiter, observe my fellow diners, take in the convivial atmosphere, the clatter of silverware, the low din of voices, the exuberance of the two artfully dressed young French women seated next to me, tucking into their steak frites.  I linger over a dish of mussels, with undistracted appreciation.  Happiness, it turns out, is available after all. It was right here all along. By the time dessert arrives (I never order dessert!), I no longer feel alone, but intimately, joyfully connected.  Alive in the moment, grateful for what is, full and content and ready for the long walk back to my hotel.  Tomorrow at this time, I will be back at home in my own kitchen, making a meal, setting the table.  Tonight, though, I am dining alone, and glad to be here.