Spirit. And books for you!

Last month, my pal Margaret Roach and I gave away four books each – and in return, you gave us hundreds of thoughtful comments and generated the best reading list we’d seen anywhere. So of course, we thought: Let’s do this again! This time, we’re celebrating the official publication date of Margaret’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There, as well as the new paperback edition of Dani Shapiro’s gorgeous memoir, Devotion. What better way to enjoy the gift of these ordinary days of February than with good books and good friends?

If there’s one thing (actually there are many, but you’ll figure that out!) that our three stories have in common it’s that we all touch on matters spiritual. As writers, as women, as humans, we have each found ourselves longing for something ineffable – call it more feeling, more spirit, more love, more faith in life as it is. And we’ve drawn closer to this “more” in the most ordinary places: the garden, the yoga mat, the kitchen sink, the dinner table.

Reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion, last year, I found myself thinking, “Oh, if only she had written this book sooner, I wouldn’t have had to go to all the effort of writing one myself!” It was an odd notion, for Dani’s spiritual odyssey – from a deeply religious and traditional Jewish childhood to a profoundly transformative exploration of Buddhism and yoga — bears almost no resemblance to my own casually Protestant rural upbringing and midlife floundering.

And yet, again and again, the questions that plagued Dani as she dealt with the early loss of her parents, her infant son’s critical illness, and her nagging self-doubt and anxiety, seemed eerily similar to my own sense of loss and confusion as my children grew into adolescence and I felt the old routines and rituals that had sustained our family life begin to slip away. How could we be so very different, and still have so much in common?

I’m not even sure now who sent the first Facebook message, but, having tread so closely upon one another’s heels through this rocky territory of loss and change and letting go, meeting face to face seemed like a small, yet utterly necessary, leap to make. It wasn’t long before we managed to get ourselves seated across from one another over a couple of lattes, talking as if we’d been friends all our lives.

The last time I saw Dani, I brought her a signed copy of Margaret’s bound galley, eager to connect even more wires and expand our little group. So what if, at first blush, Margaret’s story of leaving the fast-paced world of New York publishing for a solitary life in the country appeared to have little bearing on Dani’s explorations of faith and doubt and motherhood? I was coming to see that, once you peel away the first layer of external circumstance in any of our lives, what’s left, pulsing right below the surface, is practically universal: the yearning for connection, contentment, meaning, and peace.

And perhaps this is the most wonderful thing about reading and writing memoir – private, unknown, and unlikely meetings of the heart and soul occur within the pages of books every single day. Certainly the relationship between author and reader can be as intensely personal, as intimate, as healing, as any in real life. As it turned out, Margaret herself was already a devoted Dani fan. We had all discovered one other in print first, had read each other’s work with a sense of deep and abiding recognition, and had realized, with sighs of relief, that we weren’t alone in our seeking after all.

Spirit. I search for it all the time, everywhere. And then I remember: it’s always right here, right where I am, whenever I pause long enough to really pay attention to the world, whenever I notice what’s already right in front of me. Certainly, I find it expressed in the words of these two extraordinary writers I’ve come to know and love, both in print and in life. What a pleasure it is to introduce them to you, to make our circle even bigger, to invite everyone in.

“Much has already happened, and has formed the shape of our lives as surely as water shapes rock. We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge.”
–from Devotion by Dani Shapiro

“The greater Garden, capital G, perpetually tries to take over the relatively puny one that I have placed in its shadow. It musters forces far greater than a barn full of tools and these two hands. . .will be able to keep at a distance forever. We are small, we are nobody—but when we are out there toiling—turning the compost, harvesting the year’s sweet potatoes, planting only the biggest cloves of the previous garlic crop to continue to improve our own strain—we are also part of something infinite.”
–from And I Shall Have Some Peace There
by Margaret Roach

TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF SIX SETS OF 3 BOOKS EACH, comment here and on Margaret and Dani’s sites. Tell us: Where do you seek and find spirit in your life? If you’re feeling shy, no problem, you can simply say “Count me in!” (But we do love hearing from you, and the more answers to our question, the more interesting the conversation!) Leave a comment on all three sites and you’ll triple your chances of winning our books.

Entries close at midnight Saturday, February 19, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.

Remember: Once you post your entry here, go see Margaret and Dani to triple your chances. And if you’ve been sent over to my site by one of them, Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. If you like what you read, do come back – you can subscribe in the box to the left.

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How we play the game

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”   I know from long experience as a mother on the sidelines how easy it is to say those words to our children — and how, although we really, really do mean it, we also (perhaps secretly) really want them to win, too. The truth is, we would prefer them to have it all, the grace under pressure, the good sportsmanship, and the sweetness of a hard-won conquest.

He looks so much like his dad, my son Jack.  I see it in the way he walks, tilted forward a little, across the tennis court; the way he tosses the ball high for a first serve, the  squint of his eyes.  When the two of them play against each other, there is more than tennis going on–youth against age, raw power versus long experience, desire coming up against cunning. To call it an Oedipal drama might be to overstate the case, but not by much.  The son seeks to vanquish the father; the elder concedes to his progeny and, in the process, confronts his own mortality.  “It’s only tennis,” I want to say, “lighten up.”  But mostly they are serious, each intent on proving something to the other.  By the time spring break was over, Jack had a blister on his palm the size of a silver dollar. Steve took a handful of Ibuprofen and claimed victory.

The father-son practice wasn’t for naught, though.  Jack got back to school and played his way to a number six spot on the varsity team.  Saturday he had a match just an hour from home and, somewhat to my surprise –for Jack is not a kid who generally wants his parents in the audience–he invited us to come and watch him play.  It was raw and windy in the morning, gray clouds scudding across the sky, not a great day to stand around outside for a couple of hours.  And we had house guests to think about, Steve’s brother from Minnesota, here with his daughter to visit college campuses; should we drag them along to a high school tennis match on a blustery April afternoon?  But they insisted on coming, too, glad for a change of pace and a chance for the cousins to see each other.  We arrived armed with snacks and cameras, hats and gloves,  wearing the winter coats I’d pulled back out of the storage closet where I’d optimistically packed them away last week, when it was 86 degrees.

Jack was playing his way to a doubles win as we arrived. There was just time for a sweaty hello peck on the cheek and a Clif bar, before he rewrapped his grip and headed back out for his singles.  We wandered over to the farthest court, the no-man’s land of the number six slot. Before long, the sun came out, the day turned warmish, then warmer still.  Coats came off, sunglasses went on, Caitlin began snapping pictures. Jack leapt high, hit well, scored a point. “Nice shot,” Steve murmured, resisting the nearly irresistible urge to coach. The perfection of the afternoon seemed to materialize out of nowhere–the delicately budding trees and the tender green grass of this early, astonishing spring; the sun heating our backs, the pleasing view of distant mountains against a sky of purest blue, the thwack of balls and the encouraging shouts of boys cheering one another on.  My husband, niece and brother-in-law, all four of us there together, just for the fun of it.  Family ties.

Sometimes I am so afraid for this son of mine, for all the pain and heartache that will no doubt be part of his future.  But for a while,  during what was turning out to be a very long tennis match indeed, I managed to put a hold on my fear, allowed myself a brief vacation from worry, remembered to simply love the moment.  No need right now to think about the ghosts of the past, the dream of an unknowable future; just first serve, second serve, deuce, game point.

Out on the court, Jack was holding his own against a fleet-footed Japanese boy named Kevin. Perhaps he was hitting a little too hard, given the wind; perhaps Kevin’s serve wasn’t quite up to par.  Hard to tell who really had the edge.  Kevin took the first set, but just barely.  Jack fought his way back in the second, won it all in a long, well-played tiebreaker.  By then, all of the other five matches were over, both of the teams sitting court side, watching.  The sun sank lower; the coaches came out and conferred with their players.  It was late; the match would be decided by a ten-point tiebreaker.

Jack was always our too-emotional little boy; the one who would lose his cool, upend a board game in the final moments, stomp off in tears when things didn’t turn to his advantage.  Even now, he struggles not to lose focus, to hang in there, not to give up too soon, not to let his demons get the better of him.  “How’d you play,”  I will ask him after a game with his dad.  “Aw,” he says in all honesty, “I beat myself.”

But two and a half hours into this match, my son was playing the best tennis of his life.  He missed, and soldiered on.  He scored, and continued.   First serve, second serve, deuce, ad-in, game point. Again and again and again,  point after nerve-wracking point, the tide turned one way and then the other.

The crowd–and by then it was a crowd–cheered louder.  If ever there was a moment to become unglued, this was it.  Two exhausted players, everything on the line, a tiebreaker that seemed as if it would never end as ten points turned into twenty. Yet they each dug deep, found second winds, and then thirds,  locked in a duel that had, right before our eyes, turned epic.  And somewhere along the way, as two hours became three, the outcome really had ceased to matter.  The boys made their own calls, trusted each other, even seemed to establish, as time went on, a kind of fraternity.

By the end, everyone was hollering, “You’ve got it, hang in there Jack, it’s yours.” Meanwhile, Kevin’s friends urged him on in Japanese, as he stretched his cramping calves, shook his arms out, got ready to serve again.  But the truth was, they were both beyond hearing any of us. The game had transcended itself, been transformed from a competition between two strangers into an intimate shared experience, one that had taught each of these determined young athletes something new about themselves.

In the final minutes of class, my first yoga teacher always said the same words to us, as we lay resting in shavasana: “We show up, burn brightly in the moment, live passionately, and when the moment is over, when our work is done, we step back and let go.”

Step back and let go.  How hard is that?  For me, most of the time, quite a challenge.  For my son, who often lies awake till the wee hours of the morning, processing the day, an ongoing struggle.  Which is why what happened next both moved me to tears and left me full of hope for Jack’s nearly adult self.

He lost the tiebreaker.  When the last ball went long, he turned to us smiled, shrugged his shoulders, then walked to the net to shake Kevin’s hand.  There was an instant then, when just maybe they caught one another’s eye, acknowledged what they’d just been through together–who knows?  All I could see was that it was Jack who, caught up in the emotion of the moment, suddenly raised his arms, Jack who reached  across the net to give Kevin a hug, a pat on the back. And then, somehow, he found the energy to run across the empty courts to where his team was waiting for him, ready with high-fives all around. “Victory to our spirits,” as Rolf would say.  “Peace to all beings.”