making room

A few weeks ago I phoned my son Jack in Asheville. “How would you feel about me taking over your bedroom at home and turning it into a writing space?” I asked.

I’d hesitated for weeks before raising this idea. But Jack didn’t hesitate in his response. “Oh, that’s fine,” he said, “you can do whatever you want with my room.”

Although we have a tiny office on the first floor of our house, I’ve never written a word in it. The desktop computer is my husband’s and his in-box sits beside it, overflowing with not-urgent papers and clippings and instruction manuals. The window above the desk looks out to the driveway and whatever vehicles happen to be parked there. The counter is a repository for checkbooks and bills to be paid, stamps and envelopes. And the chair, just the right height for Steve, is not very inviting to me. The office is a perfectly good place to write a check or Google driving directions, but it’s not a space my muse has ever chosen to visit.

Most of the words I’ve produced over the last ten years in this house have come from a stool at the kitchen table, where I look out to a view of fields and mountains and sky. I’ve spent countless hours perched there, staring out the windows above the sink while trying to pull my thoughts together. As a mother, as a wife, as a cook and homemaker, and also as a writer, I’ve always been drawn to this room, my own home base, whether I’m chopping something, stirring something, washing something, or writing something. Soups and emails, jars of jam and blog posts, thank you notes and books, all have come from my kitchen. More often than not, several of these things are coming together at once, which means that the written work can easily be shifted to the bottom of my priorities list. No one actually cares if I write or not, but dinner does have to appear on that table every night.

And yet, as summer turned to fall this year, I found myself longing for some other kind of place, a place not in the middle of the action but away from it. A place in which some new work might begin to take shape, privately and quietly. A place where there is nothing that needs to be chopped or watered or cleaned or stirred, where books of memoir and poetry would be easily at hand, and where my laptop and notes and papers don’t have to be put away at the end of the day so that placemats and napkins and silverware can be laid out in their place. [continue…]

who is we?

If you’ve ever fallen out of touch with a friend, you already know this: reconnecting isn’t easy. You quiet your nerves and deliberate for a moment before, finally, after months, picking up the phone just to say “hi.” You wait a beat or two before hitting send on an email with a header like, “Everything ok? I’ve missed you!” That’s sort of how it feels to me today, as I sit in my somewhat messy, decidedly lived-in kitchen and type these sentences onto the screen. I could clean up all the dishes from the veggie soup I’ve just made and rinse out the cans for recycling. Or I can let them wait, take a deep breath, put my fingers on the keys, and trust that  words will come.

This morning I listened to an interview with writer Pico Iyer in which he explains why he spends the first hours of his day in silence. “I just sit there,” he says, “trying to sift through my projections, my distortions, trying to find the voice behind my chatter, trying to find, of all the things passing through my head, if there is any one thing worth committing to the page.” Although I haven’t been doing much sitting lately – there are too many weeds in the garden to allow for that – I’ve been engaged in a similar kind of daily sorting and sifting and wondering. “Speak only if it improves upon the silence,” Gandhi advised, words I’ve pondered while questioning my own writing, how to respond appropriately to the unfolding events in our world, and whether there’s any need to add one more voice to the clamor.

Reading the New York Times over breakfast, tuning in for the latest CNN breaking news updates as I peel potatoes in the evening, I’m at once pulled in and appalled. How to reconcile these small pleasures – the comfort of a morning cup of coffee, the routine of making a meal in my own familiar kitchen – with the deeply disturbing developments reported in the paper or on my TV screen? [continue…]

moments of seeing: books!

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Sometimes, life sits you down in a chair and insists that you stay put, doing the thing you’re really meant to do.

Last winter and spring, recovering from two hip replacements and an excruciating case of post-op bursitis, I found myself facing some very long days.

The physical therapy exercises I was required to do were numbingly dull, until I had the stunning revelation that I could link each repetitive movement to my breath and call it “yoga.” Suddenly, even if I was just lying in bed and flexing my feet, I had my practice back. All it took was a change of attitude, from grudging to mindful. Breath equals connection. And with that simple truth, I was on my way, slowly healing, one inhalation and exhalation at a time.

Meanwhile, nearly two years after I first thought about collecting the essays from this space into a book, I finally had time and space to actually settle down and get to work. The long empty days of recuperation were transformed, by a small shift of intention, into a kind of writer’s retreat for one. [continue…]

how we spend our days

sunriseAnnie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” a line that resonated deeply with me when I first read it years ago.

“How We Spend Our Days” is also the name of a wonderfully intimate monthly series in which writers (including some of my favorites) share glimpses of the private lives and processes behind the words we share with the world.

Today, I’m honored to be the guest writer over at Catching Days.

Please do come visit, read my essay, and say hello over at Cynthia Newberry Martin’s lovely site.  Click here.

Why I write: “We still and always want waking”

photoI’ve been fascinated, over the last month or so, to read so many of my favorite bloggers’ answers to the following questions about their writing process.  (Don’t we all want to know what inspires the writers we love to do what they do?)

Today, thanks to Nicki Gilbert’s invitation, it’s my pleasure to hop on this train and try to put my own writing into some kind of context.  And it’s an even greater pleasure to introduce three fellow writers I consider among my must-reads, Jeanne Henriques, whose gorgeous photos and vivid descriptions of her ex-pat life give rise to all sorts of fantasies; author Beth Kephart, who writes about books and the writing life with sustained insight, eloquence, and passion; and Amy VanEchaute, new to the blogging world and already accruing many devoted readers at her exquisitely executed site My Path With Stars Bestrewn.

 A little background. . .

Fifteen years ago, when my two sons were small, I found myself haunted by a lack I couldn’t even name.  I had a steady editing job I could do from home, babysitting help during those working hours, a comfortable house in the suburbs, two precious little boys and a husband I loved.  A “good” life.   And yet I juggled all the balls – mothering, working, household chores, activities, socializing, going and doing and getting – with a sense I was missing something essential. As my children grew and entered school, as I got busier and our days more complicated, this inchoate longing only intensified.

One afternoon, while sitting on the sofa with my five-year-old son, crocheting mitten strings as snowflakes drifted past the window,  I finally realized what this painful yearning was: a desire to inhabit my own life more fully. Not to do more, but to be more.  To have more quiet moments just like this one. And so I began systematically, and a bit ruthlessly, to simplify our family life. I also began to write about it.  Having spent years as a literary editor, I never imagined myself as a writer.  But suddenly I had something I wanted – actually, needed is not too strong a word here – to say. I needed to remind myself, again and again, what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to lead.

Writing demanded that I sit still and pay attention.  It required time, reflection and, most of all, a confrontation with my innermost self.  If I really wanted to inhabit my life, it seemed, then the best way to do it was to slow down enough to notice the details.  And then, by subtle alchemy, something inside shifted. As I began to shape words, the words I wrote began to shape me.  [continue…]