Ordinary Days, everywhere (and, finally, the words to the video)

IMG_4292_2A funny thing happened last weekend.  I turned on my computer to check email, and there were a dozen letters from Australia, each bearing kind Happy Mother’s Day wishes from down under.  There were even more messages for me on Facebook.  I was puzzled at first, but then the fifth note I read explained what was going on:  “Your Gift of an Ordinary Day video is going viral in Australia,” a mom of two wrote to me.

Sure enough.  I paid a visit to the YouTube link: 200,000 more clicks in just a couple of days — and suddenly my three-year-old video was inching right up toward 2 million views.  (When I told this to my friend Ann Patchett, she promptly pointed out that Fifty Shades of Grey first went viral in Australia, too, which is probably not relevant, but who can say?  I’m pretty certain her email is the only time the titles Fifty Shades of Grey and The Gift of an Ordinary Day have appeared in the same sentence, and that alone gave me pause.) [continue…]

Mending the world within our reach — and a video to inspire

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-free-heart-image28627969I suspect I’m not the only one feeling a little wary and vulnerable in my skin these days.  A week after the Boston bombings, as people across the nation paused yesterday afternoon to observe a moment of silence at 2:50, I stood alone in my own quiet kitchen, sad and somewhat at a loss for what to do next.

There is so much in my life to be grateful for. No one I know was injured last week.  All my loved ones are fine.  Nothing visible in my world has changed. And yet, I find myself blinking back tears at the slightest provocation or criticism or harsh word.  There is too much violence in the world.  Let us not add to it, not even with one more negative word or gesture.

The headlines in the newspaper are both an accounting and a measure of our collective sorrow: the suffering that spills across the pages in articles and images, the anger and confusion still searching for an outlet, the grief still so fresh and raw.  Looking at the photos of two brothers, one dead and one facing death or life imprisonment, I search in vain for some clue that would explain such calculated, senseless evil.  And then, because I am myself a mother of two boys, I can’t help but think: these boys are also someone’s sons.

At the same time, photos from the funerals remind us of all the other parents who are mourning.  The losses, and the ripples from those losses, are unfathomable. Yet in the midst of loss, there is extraordinary grace, too, and resilience. On TV, a composed young dancer’s face lights up as she tells Anderson Cooper how glad she is to be alive, even as she envisions her new life without her left foot.  She will dance again, she insists, leaning into her husband’s arms and gazing down at the bright pink bandage that wraps her stump.  And then she makes a promise: somehow, though she’s never been a runner herself, she intends to return to the Marathon next year – as a participant, even if it means she walks or crawls across the finish line.

There is more than one path toward healing, no one right way to grieve or to recover.  But after a week of monitoring the unfolding developments in Boston, after listening to this courageous young woman try to articulate why she is choosing not to look back in anger but to move forward with hope, I sense it’s time for a break from the relentless onslaught of news.  Time to find my own still center and embrace the texture of life as it is – not an easy task in the best of times, perhaps even more challenging today.

The sight of my welcoming house at the end of a long car ride Sunday night filled my heart to overflowing.  Hugging my husband and son after a weekend on the road, receiving a sweet text just now from a friend, bending down to the floor to snuggle my aging dog, reading a poem I love, watching the sun slip behind a cloud, just being – alive and aware and fully present in my own ordinary life – feels emotionally demanding, too.  It’s as if everything has become heightened, both the fragility of my own brief presence here, and the exquisite, complicated beauty of our interconnected human existence on this earth.

Maybe, for a time, we are meant to be this raw and tender.  Forced to acknowledge the dark shadow side of human nature and to feel the full brunt of that knowing, we have to face the truth:  People hurt each other.  Violence and suffering are intertwined, one giving rise to the other.  And somehow, it is up to each one of us to do better, to soften our hearts, to sing our songs even in the midst of sorrow, to take better care of ourselves and of one another.

I think of how many opportunities I have each day to be brave and vulnerable, to offer a hand, to make love visible – and how many of those opportunities I squander, because I’m too annoyed to be expansive, too scared to reach out, too distracted to notice, or too busy to bother.  And then I’m reminded of words I turn to again and again by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, words that guide me home when I stray away from the person I aspire to be:

Be brave…

“Anything you do from the soulful self will help lighten the burdens of the world. Anything. You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion. Be outrageous in forgiving. Be dramatic in reconciling. Mistakes? Back up and make them as right as you can, then move on. Be off the charts in kindness. In whatever you are called to, strive to be devoted to it in all aspects large and small. Fall short? Try again. Mastery is made in increments, not in leaps. Be brave, be fierce, be visionary. Mend the parts of the world that are within your reach. To strive to live this way is the most dramatic gift you can ever give to the world.”

 Inspiration. . .

I first met Carrie Carriello three years ago, when she attended a reading of The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  She told me she was thinking about writing a book herself, and asked if I would read a few of her essays.  Her humor and  courage were evident in every paragraph.  I couldn’t imagine how this busy young mother could possibly take care of five rambunctious children, including an autistic son, and find time to write a book, too.  And yet I also had a feeling nothing was going to stop her; she was that determined to tell her family’s story and to share her special little boy with the rest of us. Today, What Color is Monday? is published.

It’s my pleasure to share Carrie’s video with you, in which she recalls the moment she knew for certain her special son would find his way in the world, thanks to a stranger’s generosity – a beautiful example of the way one small act of kindness can transform a life. Listening to Carrie, I’m inspired to reach a little higher myself — to love more, to be better, to be braver, to be kinder.  “You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity can cause to be set in motion.”

Click here to watch.

 

 

The View from My Window

IMG_5681The Christmas gift I remember most vividly from my childhood wasn’t one I received myself. Early one autumn, just over forty years ago, my father purchased a rusty, decrepit antique sleigh and set about restoring it to present to my mother.

As a teenager and young woman, horses had been her passion, a passion that had no place in her adult life as a busy mother and full-time partner in my father’s business. Yet as she entered middle age, I think my mother began to worry that if she didn’t climb back on a horse soon, she might not ever do it again. Her greatest joy in life would be nothing but a passing memory, relegated to her unfettered past, a time before marriage and children and working for my dad conspired to ensure that her own hopes and dreams took a back seat to everyone else’s needs.

And so, on the cusp of forty, my mom bought herself a horse and proceeded to fall hopelessly in love all over again — with her spirited three-year-old Morgan and with the smells of sawdust and grain and fresh hay and saddle soap. Of course, the horse needed a place to live. We left the modest in-town house attached to my dad’s dental office on a busy road, where my brother and I had spent most of our lives, and moved out to the country, to a remote 1765 cape with a barn, deep in the woods and surrounded by trails. A house of low ceilings and wide, sloping floorboards, steeped in silent history.

For months, most nights after his last patient, my father slipped away to work on that old sleigh, rebuilding it from a broken down skeletal form, cleaning and polishing the runners, refurbishing all the parts, upholstering a new black leather seat, priming and painting and detailing the bright red panels and the glossy black trim. He raced against the clock, working late into the night and every available weekend hour, to make sure it was finished, perfect, by Christmas morning.

Many of my childhood memories are hazy. The horses, the sleigh, even the barn itself are long gone. But I can easily recall the dazzlingly bright Christmas morning when my dad hitched up my mom’s horse, lifted her up into the seat of the sleigh he’d made for her, and took her for a ride.

What I remember, of course, is this great labor of love on my father’s part; how, in giving her this extraordinary gift from his own heart and hand, he was really saying: “I see you. I know who you are and I know what you love, and I honor that.”

This Christmas, my husband Steve gave me the equivalent of my mother’s sleigh, a gift that is so much more than the thing itself.

I knew, over these last two years, that I was writing a book; in fact, it was never out of my mind. Even when I wasn’t working on it, I was working on it. Of course, I was also living my life, taking care of my family, spending time with my friends, writing this weekly blog.

I began the blog the week before The Gift of an Ordinary Day was published, back in the fall of 2009. My publisher had told me I needed a website, and that I should write something for it. But until the day I wrote my own first blog entry, I wasn’t exactly sure what a blog was; I’d never even seen one.

Once I started writing, though, I didn’t stop. I loved taking time out of the busyness of life to sit quietly and reflect on the meaning of the living, loved gathering up my thoughts and trying to make some sense of them, searching for the story beneath the story, the one that would give depth and shape to my experience and perhaps begin to illuminate the experiences of others as well.

Even more, I loved the conversation that soon got underway here, the thoughtful comments from you, my readers, the glimpses you’ve offered into your own lives and passions and predicaments, the heartfelt support you’ve extended to me as I’ve shared mine.

And yet, I’ve never thought of these pieces as much more than parts of that ongoing conversation, temporal and fleeting, musings that are very much of the moment in which they were written.

Turns out, my husband saw things a little differently. Perhaps he understands, even better than I do, what matters to me and why. And so months ago, unbeknownst to me, he began to gather these three years worth of pieces into a book. The result is the beautiful 350-page illustrated hardcover volume I opened on Christmas morning.

He titled the book The View from My Window, and for the jacket he shot a photo of our mountains, as I see them every single morning from my spot at the kitchen sink. He chose photos, wrote captions, assembled and re-read and copy-edited three years worth of my posts. He hired a proofreader, designed the pages and the cover, and asked a printer friend in Minnesota to produce a print run of thirty elegantly bound copies.

To say I was surprised on Christmas morning to find out I’d written not one book but two, would be an understatement. Realizing that my husband had been laboring for months, in hours when I’d assumed he was working on his own stuff, to produce a book printed and published just for me, reminded me of the long-ago efforts of my dad.

At the same time, this gesture is entirely in character for my husband, who shares my passion for books and who is at heart a publisher himself. We met, after all, at work, back when he was the marketing director at Houghton Mifflin Company and I was an aspiring young editor there. Little wonder then, that all these years later, the gift from his heart was this: to lovingly collect my words and give them back to me between two covers.

I’m not sure what to do with these books. I will give them to a few close family members and friends and save a couple for my sons and their families. But I also know that without you, the readers of this blog, The View from My Window wouldn’t exist. I would have stopped writing here long ago if it weren’t for the connection and sense of community we’ve created in this place — together.

And so, with the publisher’s gracious permission, I’d like to give away two copies of this (very) limited edition to you, the readers who show up here week after week, to read and respond and share your own stories with me and with one another. (To enter to win, just leave a comment below. I will draw two names at random on January 8 — publication date for Magical Journey!)

Today, as the snow fell softly outside, I opened my new book and began to read. It seemed right somehow, that as I bid good-bye to 2012 and prepare to welcome a new book into the world just a week from now, I pause to look backward as well as forward. Here, then, are a few of my posts from the past. Perhaps you will remember them. If you’re new to this space, perhaps you will be happy to read them for the first time.

Blessings to you and yours for a joyful new year. May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.

“Adulthood for Amateurs,” Oct. 26,2009

“Good-byes,” Jan. 3, 2010

“Asking for Help,” Feb. 4, 2010

“You Have What I Want,” Jan. 7, 2011

Reconnecting

Have you ever fallen out of touch with a good friend? You’d really like to call; you miss her. But with every day that passes, it seems harder to reach out. So much time has passed and so much has happened. You wonder, Is it too late to reweave the threads of intimacy? Catching up can be harder than staying close.

The weeks go by, the months, the years, perhaps. More change, more water under the bridge. The life you’re living now isn’t the same one you shared all those yesterdays ago, back when you and your friend knew all the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of each other’s days. Where to start?

That’s the question I’m asking myself this morning as I sit propped up in bed, with my laptop on my knees. Where to start?

For two and a half years, I wrote here each and every week. What began as a way to publicize my book The Gift of an Ordinary Day very quickly became a treasured two-way conversation with you – readers, kindred spirits, new friends. A conversation in which I’ve most certainly received more than I gave.

I posted a weekly reflection for you, and you wrote back, sharing your lives with me. You generously offered wisdom, gratitude, advice, book recommendations, and, most of all, connection. After a while, I couldn’t imagine NOT showing up each week to write these essays. My commitment to myself had transformed into something else altogether: a commitment to a vast web of relationships I’ve come to treasure.

But, I haven’t been a great friend to this blog of late. Months have passed, and my posts have been sporadic. I’ve missed our weekly conversation. At the same time, it’s felt as if time itself has picked up speed. The truth is, I’ve found it hard even to be present for my family, let alone to claim a few quiet hours to sit down and gather my thoughts onto a page.

Not long ago I wrote in an email to a friend that I’ve been humbled, over the last six months or so, both by what life demands of me and by what it offers. A challenge at every turn, it seems. And yet, too, gifts of extraordinary beauty. Lately, it’s been difficult for me to accept those gifts with open hands because I’ve been so consumed by the challenges.

I had a book deadline to meet, and then to meet again, and yet again after that. (There was the deadline for the first draft, back in April; the deadline for revisions in June; and finally, just four days ago, the Big One, for returning the final, copyedited manuscript to the publisher.) I made it. But not easily, and only by leaving much else undone.

At the same time, I’ve been called upon to help loved ones going through unexpected hardships. Caring for a dear friend through a life-threatening health crisis has been both challenging and fulfilling, certainly an opportunity to learn and grow. Trying to figure out how to help our son Jack recover from two debilitating stress fractures in his spine is part of my job as his mom these days. (It probably goes without saying that nineteen-year-old boys in chronic pain are not the easiest creatures to live with.) These last months have been about doctor visits, MRIs and CAT scans, trips to specialists and herbalists, lots of research, blender smoothies and Chinese remedies. Not anyone’s choice; just the way it is right now.

And yet, even in the midst of deadlines and obligations that have felt overwhelming at times, there have been gifts to treasure: A day in spring when all the peonies and irises and lupines bloomed in the garden at the same time. Sitting in the audience with my husband as our son Henry played keyboard for a production of The Music Man on Cape Cod. Relaxing by a fire on our hilltop with Steve and an old friend as 4th of July fireworks filled the night sky. Rounding a corner and seeing this glorious ancient beech tree, its branches aglow with late afternoon light, while on a walk near my friend Margaret’s house.

The demands of my life, I realize, are here to stay. They may shift and change, as what’s urgent one week is supplanted the next by some new need or obligation or crisis. But there’s no such thing as smooth sailing, or an empty road, or a clean slate. Real life is stormy, bumpy, complicated. Perhaps my real challenge is not about ducking my head and leaning into a task with single-minded focus until it’s done (it may never be done!), but about remembering to stop once in a while, to look up, open my hands, and accept the gifts that my life offers me right alongside the challenges.

Already, I sense summer slipping toward fall. The drought in New England has given our thirsty landscape the brittleness of autumn two months early. Time marches on relentlessly, but I don’t have to. I can pause whenever I want to. I can take a deep breath, and decide where I want to place my attention in this moment.

Looking at my calendar, my to-do list, the stack of unsorted mail on the desk, I can allow anxiety to have its way with me. Or, I can choose instead to see a bigger picture, the abundance of my life just as it is.

On this early morning, it feels good to be back here, catching up with you. I have a new book coming out in January. (More on that soon!) I’ve just committed to walking The Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk again this September, in memory of my friend Diane. (More on that soon, too, but first I better put on my sneakers and start training!) I have a stack of unread books by my bed. (I’m eager to share them with you.)

Meanwhile, I am making a commitment to myself for these next few weeks of summer: To meet life’s demands as they arise, but to gratefully accept its gifts as well. I intend to take a swim in the lake, read a book in the hammock, wander through town with an ice cream cone.

And I’m going to stay in closer touch. Because taking time to catch up with a friend is absolutely worth the effort — in fact, it’s really a gift we give to ourselves.

So my friends, hello. It’s good to be back. And I wonder: What has your life been demanding of you this summer? What has it offered?

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.